There have been but a small handful of times in my life that I have known that my life has just changed and will never be the same.
Today was one of those days.
A trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum/S21 Prison and The Killing Fields in Cambodia
I’m still far too much in digesting mode (forget processing – that will take months), but I feel like something about this day and the things we’ve seen, learned, and experienced today needs to be acknowledged, shared, and SOMEthing put out there, now. Immediately. Yesterday. Five years ago.
To begin with, since my own pieces on the subject and experience will be long in the making, please check out these links to familiarize yourself with what I’m about to talk about. They’re not too long and are fairly digestible while still being incredibly educational.
Chances are, you may have never even heard about this. The bigger chance is, even if you’ve heard of it…something…you had no idea the half of it. I certainly didn’t.
I should have.
We should. You should.
There’s much more that goes into this, but this will give you a good starting point and you can read more if you are so interested in understanding the context. Eventually after I return home, I will have something on here to put the pieces together in a simplified form.
For now, start here:
Those are the two places we went today.
When we got home tonight, I wanted to sit and write a post or a journal or SOMEthing, but as I did some searches to get more details, context, and a bigger picture of everything now that we’d seen and experienced the places in person, I found myself feeling fairly agitated.
I wanted to talk to someone about it, but whom? I know not many of my friends and contemporaries would know about this enough to fully appreciate the magnitude of what I really wanted to share, one major part of the day and the experience, and I wouldn’t expect them to.
Fortunately, my good friend Scott was on, and he was just the person I needed to talk to.
I’m still feeling too antsy about today to really adapt this into much of a coherent post, but maybe this sort of thing is better that little bit raw anyway.
He wasn’t anticipating it being a public conversation, so I’ve edited it to just my parts of the dialogue, and it may be too much of a bitch to read in this format. If so, don’t worry about it…there will be a proper post (probably several) eventually. But for now, this is what I got, so I thought I’d give it to you:
me: i always think when we visit places like this that it should be mandatory to visit at least one if not several as part of one’s higher education
at any rate this was NOT given due study in school, especially given that it JUST OCCURRED IN 1979
wikipedia says In all, an estimated 1,700,000–2,500,000 people died under his leadership
i just feel like, for as terrible as the holocaust was, the way they (cambodians) carried theirs out just seems so much more brutal
that was pretty much all they did
i’m not making the comparison to belittle one or the other, rather to say how shocked i am that something was actually at least as bad, perhaps even more acute
me: yeah even i didn’t (have any idea about cambodia) until starting to plan this trip, and really, even until today
i knew roughly something had happened…that there was something to learn about it, it was bad, maybe really bad, and that i’d be learning about it soon
that was the extent of it til today pretty much
but today it was so mind-blowing (and after everything we’ve seen, done and learned about the past two years, both good and bad, that’s saying a LOT), i actually took pages and pages of NOTES, which i never do
in addition to the 675 photos
fortunately they let you take pictures of EVERYTHING, so i will definitely be sharing it
me: yeah we actually hired a guide to take us around the prison and i’m SO GLAD we did
usually we just walk around stuff like this, just to see it… usually that’s fine. this was worth it for sure
there are still bloodstains on the floor in some spots
i even found a bloody handprint on one of the walls
it’s an empty room whereas most others at least had a bed (actual one left from the torture) and a photo of the last corpse found there… so since the room was empty, most people didn’t walk in
i was pretty shocked when i found it, as the guide didn’t even point it out (he pointed out the stains on the floor in another of the buildings that we may or may not have noticed)
that made it pretty real
you could still see the prints, like fingerprints, from the hand
me: and you want to know the most unexpected thing? the thing that i find myself, now that we’re back and i have some time to process, is totally spinning my head? not the stacks and stacks and stacks of skulls and bones, or the horrible photos or the blood….
there were at least 14,000 people who came through S21 and all were severely tortured (btw it got HELLA creepy in there when it started getting dark…and i’m not usually spooked by such things – but it did start feeling different)
[edit: this is my own current understanding/interpretation (and simplification for personal understanding) of what I've read and from the visits; don't take it as gospel]
they were basically tortured to extract a “confession” to wrongdoing, to justify killing them
because basically pol pot was trying to cull everyone who was educated or had any ties to the western world or mentality (including nothing more than living in the city)
he needed only 1 million to fulfill his agrarian utopia dream
the rest needed to go, so that’s why he was culling those people
so basically this prison was just the way to extract a “legal” and political justification, right, then once the confession was signed, off they went to the killing field
dropped off from a truck, blindfolded, handcuffed, nationalistic music playing full blast to cover up the screams so no one arriving would panic and fight back
they perched them on the edge of the ditches and beat their skulls in to kill them to save bullets
babies got their heads beat against a tree, or tossed up in the air and sliced by the bayonets
torture, then killing fields, boom… they excavated only 86 of 129 sites i think it was (will give you exact figures later)
but that still uncovered almost 9k corpses
there are like 300 of these fields elsewhere in cambodia too
i thought it would just be like you go and look over some barely looking like anything field, from faraway
walking around…they’ve left things pretty preserved
they excavated almost 9k skeletons and skulls but left who knows how many still buried
and even from the pits they excavated………
as the soils shift from rain, flooding, etc…. bone fragments, teeth, and clothes still surface
they leave them there (and ask visitors to do the same obviously), and the staff goes around every 2-3 months and picks them all up
but until they do that, they just lay there – so i saw teeth, bones, and the scraps of clothes used for binding their hands and their blindfolds
saw the tree where they’d beat the babies heads against before throwing them in the adjacent pit
when the site was found, that tree was covered in bone, skin, hair, and brains
me: so that was the killing fields….to back up a little, so before they go there, they’re tortured
listen to some of this
i’ve heard of torture stuff
i went to a torture museum or two, saw the hanoi hilton
this was new shit i’d never even heard of
there was the classic waterboarding and other dunking stuff
they used the school’s (the prison was formerly a school) thing, you know where they have a rope that you climb up for PE?
they’d tie the prisoner’s hands behind their back and winch them up on there that way…from the picture, it looked like they’d winch them up from their bound hands BEHIND THEIR BACK
then flip them upside down and dunk them
they had to shit in ammo boxes and pee in jugs
if they spilled, they had to clean it up off the floor with their tongues
after their 6 second every-4-days “bath”, they had to clean that up with their tongues
(those were just living conditions) the actual tortures…things like pulling off their fingernails and pouring alcohol on it…or this one was new:
for women, they’d pull off their nipples with pliers… and then sting them in the wound with scorpion venom and centipedes
oh and the babies wouldn’t always make it to the killing fields… they all got their pictures taken when they arrived at the prison, and if the baby cried at that time, the guard would take it then and there and do the tree or bayonet thing in front of the mother
they would also have electric wire stuck in their ear and shocked, stuff like that
so, some 14,000 people at least passed through this place with these things being done to every one of them
wikipedia says 17,000
it’s hard to say for sure, but figure at least around there
of those….there were 7 survivors
the only reason they weren’t killed was because they were useful
a mechanic, a painter, etc.
(had to paint pol pot in his perfect likeness, you know)
so like i was saying earlier, all this shit that i’ve seen, done, read, heard, walked on, etc. today
what’s still kinda freakin me out the most right now…
after our tour of the prison, the tour guide says…
Would you like to meet one of the survivors?
me: i was shell-shocked. uh. YES???
i couldn’t really believe what he was asking though; it was so unexpected.
when i was doing all my research last night i saw there were 7 that survived, 3 of which were still living (at the time the articles i was reading were written)
during the tour, the guide said now only 2 of them were still living
and one of them was there
Indeed, Mr. Bou Meng was there at the prison, and he had copies of a book about his life that had been written last year by a researcher. We not only got to meet him, shake his hand, talk to him, but we got to take a piece of it and one of the most harrowing, horrible, and mind-blowing pieces of history with us: a book of his story, signed by him.
AND he was so happy we both wanted a copy, he even gave me a kiss on the cheek! (Ray’s cheeks apparently weren’t as kissable though.)
He was happy to take pictures with us and though I wasn’t sure whether we should smile or look solemn, I looked over at him to see and he had a big smile (close-lipped…almost all of his teeth were bashed out of his face during his tortures at the prison).
I suppose in retrospect the moment was brief, a few minutes, compared to the many minutes that make up a lifetime. But that experience will stay with me the rest of my life. Those few minutes worked like glue to help me put together both the tour we’d just had of the prison/school/torture chambers/cells/museum, the ghastly fields we visited just after this encounter, and the haunting roaming around we did to take it all in on our own when we again returned to the museum a few hours later, after seeing the fields.
The Khmer Rouge, the genocide, the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng/S21, they all – unbelievably, unexpectedly and amazingly – now have a face to me. A moving, breathing, smiling, talking, touching, cheek-kissing face. It was only a moment, but it was a moment that made it all a whole lot less History book, news article, or Wikipedia article…and very much more personal.
I can tell you one thing, with regards to how this personally changes my life directly: forevermore, if I’m having a “bad day” or if something makes me nervous or uncomfortable or worried…this is my benchmark. This is what a PROBLEM is. This is what a BAD DAY is, the shit I saw today. What people went through. What my few-minutes/forevermore friend went through. I’ve learned about problems before, both historical and modern (all the moreso since traveling through India and Asia). I generally try to reflect on those to keep perspective anyway. But this is a new level – and perhaps most importantly…one I can connect with.
Our guide kindly offered to translate if we wanted to talk but I was still so stunned to be able to be having this opportunity at all that the best I could muster was, um, “Hello.” (brilliant) and “I’m sorry for what happened,” to which he replied (first, hello – thank you so much for coming, he was really glad we were there), and that he hoped we would tell many people about the story of this place and his story. He wanted people to know what had happened to Cambodia, and in Cambodia.
I don’t blame him.
I do, too.
I’ll leave you with a few links to learn more about this man’s story:
Also, the Khmer documented their victims in detail. The museum is filled with hundreds of these photos, taken right after the blindfold is taken off the victim upon their arrival, confused, not knowing why they were arrested and taken away, and not knowing what is in store. You can see some of the photos we saw today here:
The photographer was only a young teenager himself, striving to do his assignment perfectly to avoid execution. Also worth a read: