Phnom Penh

Most of us don’t have a concept of living through and surviving horrific war crimes and nightmare genocides. Movies and news can’t make it real enough to emulate the feelings, and geographically it’s hard to relate to someone around the world who’s landscape and culture you’ve never seen. Before Cambodia, I’d watched the movie The Killing Fields, I had heard of Pol Pot, but I had no understanding of the breadth of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, the regime that ruled and wrecked havoc in the 1970s. They marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and forced all the city dwellers to evacuate to the countryside and join their rural neighbors as forced agricultural laborers. Anyone could be charged with treason for any offense, from having a college education to stealing a banana to feed a starving child. The “guilty,” often forced to falsely confess to numerous other infractions as well, were killed. From 1975 until 1979, it is estimated that 1/4 of the Cambodian people were exterminated: ~2.2 million of 8 million.

I visited the incredibly emotionally fraught and bleak Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial – Phnom Penh’s killing fields. This is where prisoners and “enemies” of the Khmer Rouge were brutally murdered (some of the methods are simply unthinkable, but bullets were considered too expensive and precious) and buried in mass graves. The atrocities here were only discovered after the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh in 1979, and bone fragments and teeth are still found, rising to the surface after rain storms. The memorial has done an excellent job of preserving the site and sharing the history with an audio tour narrated by a Cambodian survivor, supplemented by the remembrances and testimonies of others. I listened to the entire tour, but didn’t make it to several of the sights described (I’m afraid I got a touch of food poisoning that day). The site is frequented not only by tourists seeking to understand the genocide but by Cambodians, some of whom are still waiting, with little hope, for a loved one to come home.

Central to the memorial is a large building called the stupa. This building is decorated in traditional Hindu and Buddhist symbols, and it houses the skulls and long bones of ~8000 victims, found in the mass graves. This is nowhere near all of them. It is overwhelming, and gut wrenching.

Also overwhelming is the fact that several Khmer Rouge leaders, including a man known as Duch who was responsible for the Tuol Sleng torture prison and sending people to Choeung Ek for execution, were only tried in 2010. As for Pol Pot, Brother Number 01, he died in 1998 under house arrest, insisting that he didn’t know about the killing fields and he wept for Cambodians.

If I wasn’t already sick to my stomach, that would do the trick.

A trip to Cheoung Ek must be complemented by a visit to Tuol Sleng prison. I went two days prior to this school-turned-torture-hell-hole.

The prison is preserved as it was found in 1979


The Khmer Rouge, exact in their book keeping, photographed all their prisoners as they came in; these photos are displayed throughout buildings C & D. The emotions on these faces are resigned, sad, defiant, sullen… But not hopeful.



They were kept chained in cells 3ft by 6ft- the classrooms were partitioned with brick or wooden walls- or chained together en masse.

Prisoners were forced into confessions of crimes against the regime, horrifically tortured to death or sent to the killing fields.

These classrooms were torture rooms

Some 17,000 passed thru Tuol Sleng; maybe 30 survived (most reports say 7).

The graves of the corpses found in Tuol Sleng at the liberation of Phnom Penh, 1979

As I sat there feeling poorly with my upset stomach at Choeung Ek, I thought about the meaning of suffering. Yeah, I felt crappy and feverish, but also felt an incredible gratitude for the life I have. There is no looming threat of death just for being an intellectual (to be honest, most of the folks I know, myself included, would not have survived the Khmer Rouge’s purges of the educated); there is no threat of starvation, very little of sickness from dirty water or living conditions. There are no life threatening tests, like the forced agriculture labor amid starvation Cambodians faced, to determine if I have the will to survive. I don’t feel any guilt over this, but I do feel incredibly fortunate and privileged, and in the face of these realities at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng, unbelievably thankful.

Phnom Penh was also a great city to visit, and the horror of the past doesn’t stunt the city’s appeal. People here are alert, and the week I visited, were actively engaging in largely peaceful protests against the government – actively engaging to never repeat the past. It was an electric atmosphere, and one totally different from how Americans engage (or don’t) with their government. I came away feeling the Cambodian people had a strength grown from their past and an awareness of their impact on their country’s future.


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