Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields

i have read a lot about the Pol Pot regime and the massacres that occurred during the reign of his army of terror by the Khmer Rouge. Of all the brutalities in the world; this one has shocked and moved me the most. Not least because it was so recent (75) but also the fact that the world turned a blind eye. Cambodia was of no interest to the major leaders overseas, aside from its bordering Vietnam which the Americans had no concerns about dropping the odd bomb on to circumvent the Vietnamese. Another uninvited war, and a subsequent embarrassing loss to the Americans.

The atrocities that occurred there are so unbelievably horrific that defies all logic, all reason – no way to understand the huge losses, the barbaric way in which any chance of humanity stood a chance.

I knew that to visit Tuol Sleng – operation name S21, I would need to be fully prepared. Both emotionally, physically and spiritually. Although in the aftermath of flu, I hoped that I’d picked a quieter day (Sunday) and an early start.

It was a hot day, temperatures hitting 33 degrees. But in each room I felt chilled. The evil, the pain, the death – each room filled my every sense. No matter how hard it was, I wanted to enter every room. No matter how horrific the stories were, I had to read them. How horrifying and tragic the scenes of torture were – I had to view them. And the pictures of the prisoners, men, women, children, varying ages, I wanted to look at all of them. They deserve the respect to be acknowledged and no matter how awful I might think these are and want to look away, every room, every bed, every tool of torture is a story that needs to be heard. 

I gently traced walls where prisoners were caged like dogs, where some had carved times in, random messages, perhaps code or babble as madness set in. I’m a claustrophobic myself and find elevators difficult. But I entered the makeshift cells, no bigger than a broom cupboard to see from their eyes. Of course the stench of decaying bodies, blood, urine, fecal matter, dead rats, tears, sweat would never know because it’s clean in there. And the screaming for mercy from torture sessions going on, screaming for help, children screaming, sobbing, quiet prayers, unintelligible babble from the madness and suffering, shouting from the guards, guns firing, whips cracking, bones cracking would not be heard. But to imagine, to take a moment and imagine the fear, the confusion, the loss of hope, was the best I could do for these dead people. Respect what they endured, what horrors they were exposed too.

I couldn’t help sobbing and outright crying at times. It was overwhelming. Painful. Disgusting, vile. I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want to disrespect the place. And people should visit – photos wouldn’t do justice.

At the end I met a survivor. 85 years old, he had cataracts in his eyes. But even without that there was a bleakness to his look. A shadow. But clearly a strength, he was there to meet people and sell his book which I susequently purchased.

I left only too aware of my ability to leave, out to fresher air, out to life. A nightmare I could walk away from.

But I made the split decision to go on via tuk tuk to the  Killing Fields.  Despite my own sense of grief, I wanted to see everything. I wanted to know the route that was taken and be part of this journey into the past.

It was about 15kms away. I had a wonderful tuk tuk driver that I asked to accompany me with. People use those audio systems but I wanted a local man to tell me stories he’d heard from his family and local people. I could see it was hard for him.

At first I could see mounds of grass – which of course I took to be bodies covered. In amongst the mounds were little pathways. So made I thought so that we could walk around carefully. Until I noticed a sign, please don’t walk on the bones. I asked San what that meant as we were sticking to paths. He pointed out along the paths the odd bones protruding from the ground. What I thought had been rubbish strewn around the ground was clothing attached to these bones that were in time and with erosion coming to the surface. The more I looked, the more I saw. 

Here were people coming from Tuol Sleng to the possibility of new jobs. Instead they were killed and not always quickly and efficiently either. 

In a macabre twist music played over the loudspeaker system so the screams and further torture would be disguised from visiting nationals and other local people.

Realising I was still walking on the dead, I wanted to leave the fields immediately. Again, I took no photographs. I feel it disrespectful.

We did go to the tomb where many skulls had been displayed. Age ranges identified and the weapon used to kill was also indentified according to the state of the skull. 

I laid some flowers and put an incense burner in the sand as a sign of peace and respect. But again it was too emotionally overwhelming for me. And I moved away from San so that I could discreetly sob quietly.

The day was a painful reminder of how much we take for granted, how easily what we know can be taken away from us, how precious life is and how we must preserve this history – to face it head on – learn from it and never let it happen again.

My ache for my family after this was overwhelming. My need to love them, protect them, hold them and cherish them. Even my husband who may not take too kindly to it – but tough. They are alive, they are beautiful kind souls and we live in a world where they should never have to experience anything like that.

I took a brief reprieve in my hotel room. To cool down, lie down and ensure I was able to move past the horrific images.

The team were having dinner on the river this evening and I duly went along having missed so much of the induction already.

Perhaps that wasn’t a good idea. The group comprises of young, fresh kids, excitable and blissfully ignorant and then far left wingers that wanted to heal the world and make it a better place, etc, with lots of stern words and idealistic views. 

I wanted to be alone. Away from the sea of white faces that wax lyrical about the problems in the world and in the next breath complain about ATMs and then the refugee crisis and how embarrassed they were by their countries of origin. Who cares? Anyone can change one thing, must we sit and drone on about it for hours? Simply going over and over your embarrassment at your nationality is reinforcing a stereotype anyway.

So on the boat trip, not quite with my sea legs yet, I went up the front to watch the driver or captain whatever the nautical term is. I also spoke to some of the Cambodians and learnt a lot about the education system here.

The others drank and danced. A veritable feast along the densely tourist populated waterfront. I’m happy that PP is experiencing such a growth in tourism. Such a boost to the economy. 

On terra firma I was glad to get a tuk tuk back to my hotel. I’m not very good in social interactions anymore. I like to observe.

At my hotel I enjoyed another Cambodian dish with the same waitress I see at breakfast. She has the sweetest smile.

I think my children would love cambodia. The noise, the stimuli, the smells and the movement of it all, the changes and the crazy things you see that make it so very special.

Tomorrow is apparently a day to rest and prepare as Tuesday we head for Kratie – which will be my area.


2 thoughts on “Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields

  1. Oh man it would be hard to be in those places. I’ve seen photos and even those shock me. I wouldn’t take them either.

    I think i’ve missed it, but how long are you there for?


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