The purpose of allowing tourists to visit the Killing Fields is not one intended to entertain. Nor is the reason the doors of Tuol Sleng are open to the public today. Tuol Sleng was originally a primary school. This ordinary school where children laughed, learned and played freely is now a museum. The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.
The time in between is a time that should never have been. The point in time that I’m referring to is when the building was turned into a torturous and hideous place. A secret prison used by the Khmer Rouge during their unforgettable regime.
Both The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields sites are there as a reminder. This is in the hope that history is not repeated. The sites commemorate the atrocities carried out in the worst years of recent Cambodian history. The years of the Khmer Rouge regime are over now but the scars are still healing. Between 1975 and 1979 it is estimated that Khmer Rouge murdered approximately 3,000,000 people.
The reality is that Tuol Sleng was not just a secret prison, it was far worse than that. It was a place where thousands of people, not only men and women but also children (even babies), were tortured to death. The horrors are beyond comprehension. I will not go into further details on the means of torture used. To me, it is so distressing that I can still hear their screams as I write this. I have goose-bumps on my arms where the hairs are standing on end.
There are days that change the way we see the world and visiting these two sites are those days that change you forever. The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng are nightmarish places to visit. To me, their attraction is macabre.
To quote the words of Dr John Lennon (co-author of Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster).
“These sites provide a narrative and a voice for victims and shed light on our abilities as humans to perpetrate evil.”
Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, and the Killing fields are just two of many places in Cambodia where the mass graves of the victims lie buried. But, they remain a devastating insight into that particular period in history. Pol Pot, who led the regime and was responsible for ordering the atrocities inflicted upon the millions who died, is not the name I wish to hold in my memory. If I am to take anything away from this experience I wish to honour the memory of those who lost their lives. Still, I find it hard to digest the horrors of war and the genocide of so many people.
Be prepared and show the utmost respect if you choose to visit these places. Fully take on board and remember the catastrophic effect which begins with political instability, then leads to whole countries being torn apart by war and how it ends in a genocide of unimaginable proportions. Remember this and stop history from repeating itself. Don’t walk away from what you have witnessed on your visit without learning how important these memorials are.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
As you approach The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum from the street it really does look just like any other building. From the outside, there are no visible clues that give away what lies within. Out of the 14,000 people sent there, only seven of them survived.
Inside the museum, in the former classrooms, the tiny brick-built cells still exist. The bed frames and razor wire also remain. Row after row of black and white photos line the walls. From them stare the faces of almost 6,000 men, women and children, all of them tortured to death inside those very walls. The photos, unbelievably, were taken by the Khmer Rouge themselves before they killed each and every one of them.
The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek are mass graves where the bodies of 8,895 people were discovered after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown.
Many of the dead buried at Choeung Ek were political prisoners who had been sent to Tuol Sleng. These people were interrogated and tortured to death in Tuol Sleng. Then their bodies, plus thousands of others, were dumped in the Killing Fields’ mass graves.
The Khmer Rouge arrested, detained, tortured and killed anyone who opposed their regime. They targeted anyone they considered to be traitors, this included anyone associated with them. Whole families were killed if just one of them was accused of being a traitor.
Most of the victims at Choeung Ek were taken there by truck alive. To get the people into the trucks they told them lies about where they were being taken. Effectively making the victims more easy to handle because they had no idea they were being driven to their awaiting graves. Daily the trucks were filled with men, women and children and driven to Choeung Ek to their deaths.
The site at Choeung Ek today, a small monument stands to commemorate the dead. This monument is a Buddhist stupa with glass sides. Over 5,000 human skulls are displayed inside the stupa. All of them victims of an horrendous history. Other human bones still litter the site and, even to this day, during the rainy season clothes of the victims are still washed up by the waters.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum are in Phnom Penh.
It should be said that when you do travel to new countries it is important to know that country’s history. I urge you all to do some research of your own before planning to visit any place for the first time. It is also a sign of respect to, at least, have some knowledge of the history and customs of the countries you travel to.