Retracing a Walk to Certain Death

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

A few weeks before our visit to Cambodia, Pol Pot and the phrase Khmer Rouge did not mean much to me and I wouldn’t have thought to include them in the same breath as Hitler or Stalin. However, it is clear Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge absolutely deserve to be viewed in the same disturbing light.

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, yet this recent history seems to be lost on much of the Western world in comparison to Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union of the early 20th century. Growing up in school, neither Matt or I could recall learning anything about the the atrocities brought upon the Cambodian people in the 1970’s under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. After visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, it is clear this mass genocide needs a bigger place in the history books.


Entrance to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and immediately Pol Pot and his army of men decided it was necessary for the survival of Cambodia to implement a communist based agrarian society. Within days of entering the capitol city of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge began forcing over 2 million people from city centers throughout Cambodia to rural areas to begin work in agriculture.

Pol Pot believed capitalism and education were the downfall of society and wanted to stomp every last bit of it out of Cambodia. So began the mass genocide of Cambodians; included were intellectuals, professionals, any educated individuals, urban-dwellers, minorities and those with suspected ties to foreign governments. All family members related to these type of people were also marked for death, including women and children.

Khmer Rouge motto in regards to marked individuals: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Background: Building used to interrogate and torture prisoners. Foreground: Former gym class climbing apparatus used for torture by hanging upside down and dunking into large pots of water or feces.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school the Khmer Rouge transformed into a torture house and jail for prisoners, prior to sending people off to the Killing Fields. Walking through the halls and rooms was eerie as some of the beds, chains and barbed wire has been left as it was from the 1970’s. Pictures of the last prisoners found here adorned some of the walls, which was hard to look at as you could see the type of cruelty used on so many people.

Tuol Sleng Prisoner Pictures

Images of prisoners taken by the Khmer Rouge. Bottom right: The only seven survivors out of 17,000+ who passed through Tuol Sleng.

The Khmer Rouge kept records of every single prisoner who entered Tuol Sleng. Upon entering the grounds, body measurements and head shots were taken of each man, woman and child. Some of the these images are displayed throughout the museum to give people a glimpse of the individuals who endured this terrible fate.

Tuol Sleng Prisoner Cells

Building #2 was used to house prisoners in individual and group cells. Classrooms were transformed into multi-unit cells in many cases.

Tuol Sleng Graves

Graves of the last eleven prisoners found inside Tuol Sleng. When the Khmer Rouge fled, they had moved almost every prisoner from Tuol Sleng to the Killing Fields.

By walking the grounds of Tuol Sleng first and then making our way to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, it hit home that we were literally retracing the steps so many took to their final resting place. It was a very somber feeling and one I will never forget.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and skulls of over 9,000 individuals discovered and displayed in the memorial stupa at Choeung Ek.

After taking a 20 minute tuk tuk ride on the same road used to transport thousands of prisoners to Choeung Ek less than 40 years ago, we arrived at the entrance gate. This main road is used every day by thousands of Cambodians to get to and from work. It shows life must go on even in the face of tragedy, which is why it is so important to have remembrances like the museum and memorial so people do not forget.

Killing Fields Phnom Penh

Mass graves: Left: Grave for over 450 people. Right: Grave for 180 found decapitated. These were Khmer Rouge deserters killed by example for others.

Upon entering the grounds, you are given a headset to listen to as you walk from point to point. We found this to be extremely informational as it goes into detail about processes of the Khmer Rouge. Also included were stories from former Khmer Rouge guards and other individuals from around Cambodia who suffered through their own difficulties and trials during this period.

Cambodian Killing Fields Bones

Bone fragments and clothing seen coming up through the soil.

Each year the rains remove a layer of top soil at Choeung Ek, which reveal bone fragments and articles of clothing from those who died. It isn’t just a couple fragments either, there are numerous areas and signs noting for tourists to be mindful and respectful to not step on the bones. We were told these are collected monthly by staff and put in designated areas for proper preservation.

Killing Fields Children Tree

Killing Tree: Used to kill young children and babies

GRAPHIC CONTENT: This was by far the hardest thing to see and hear about and most graphic.

Throughout the Killing Fields, people were executed through means other than with guns. Bullets were expensive and in short supply, so the Khmer Rouge guards used whatever they had at their disposal to end the life of so many. For adults, it was generally a shovel, hammer, knife or bamboo stick to the head before being dumped into a mass grave and covered with DDT. All was done under the cover of night and loud music to drown out the screams.

However, for young children and babies, guards would hit them against a tree before disposing of them in a mass grave. Even writing that makes me cringe. To think of teenagers and young adults committing these acts against others is hard to swallow, but had they not followed orders they would have been killed themselves. It was a truly terrible situation.

In Closing

The main reason for our visit to Phnom Penh was to visit the Genocide Museum and the notorious Killing Fields. Both places had a profound effect on us and we are grateful to have been able to see them both in person. We will never forget.

About Alana

Alana is one-half of Great Big Globe. She loves animals, the Wisconsin Badgers, exploring new countries and chasing the sun.

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