When I read the book In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratna I knew I wanted to go to Cambodia – partly to understand or learn more about the Khymer Rouge but also to see the land and the Mekong that Raami, the seven yr little girl narrates in the story.
The buildings that once stood on the Choeung Ek killing fields are no longer there, in their place are signs with short explanations to what once stood there or numbers to follow on your self guided tour. As you enter the memorial centre, straight ahead of you is the memorial Stupa. A 9 storey monument housing over 4000 bones and skulls which had been removed from the mass graves which dot the area. You are given an audio set on arrival and for the next two hours you are guided from the prisoners arrival to their end by the mass graves with stories from survivors of that time to fill out the explanations. The sun was shining, the rooster was crowing and butterflies danced in the air but the atmosphere was somber as people walked in silence listening to the horrific truths of what was done between ’75 and ’79. Glass boxes held clothes or bone fragments that rise to the surface after the rainy season and if you keep your eyes on the ground, you can see pieces of bones lying there. It is hard to listen to but even harder when you find out that Pol Pot lived in exile till the ripe age of 82.
From there we headed off to Tuol Sleng – S21, originally a high school in Phnom Penh it was turned into one of the main security offices of the Khmer Rouge and was used for detention, interrogation, torture and execution after the person confessed. It is estimated that 20000 people including children went through those doors and only six came out. It is now a genocide museum and hands down one of the hardest places I have ever had to go through. We went through without a guide but it is not hard to tell what went on each of the places. Make shift cells of wood or brick broke up floors of class rooms with chiseled doors between main rooms, walls and walls of photographs of each person who was taken there. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous at record keeping. It was heart breaking looking at the images, imagining their thoughts as their photo was taken, some even were smiling, others confused, worried, terrified, defiant, angry. They were all there. I won’t explain more but the images below may capture the sense of the place although I don’t think they do it justice.