Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng

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There are two facilities, two locations of interest, that must not be overlooked on any trip to Phnom Penh. They are memorials of the unspeakable crimes that took place during the time of the Communist Khmer Rouge from 1975-79. These sites are Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) and a former prison, SP-21.

During that time, 25% of the entire population of Cambodia was starved or murdered. Nearly 100% of the population was displaced. Anything that reeked of bourgeois or capitalist consciousness was destroyed. People were forced to confess their crimes and tortured into confessing the crimes of their family members. The reign of terror was implemented by peasants, many youngsters in their teens, who were easily controlled and intimidated into carrying out the orders of the hierarchy without question. And anyway, any question would have meant death

The Killing Fields

I knew I would have this opportunity. It’s one reason I came here. For my first few days, I didn’t think about it at all. But today I woke up knowing I would go.

Today is also the first day of the travel ban on muslims entering the United States. This is just the beginning of Trump’s (Stephen Bannon’s) War on reality. And as bad as it already looks, it’s going to get worse. It’s a good day to listen to the voice of this small and humble nation, to be reminded how wrong the pathological ideas of a select few, cloaked in nobility, can go.

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On my way out of the hotel, I had a brief conversation with one of the employees. I asked what it feels like for her, a Cambodian, to go to Choeung Ek. She said she has been twice, that it’s too difficult to talk about because, with her hand to her heart, “I hurt. I so hurt.”

I visited the Killing Fields themselves first. It is only one of many such places (more than 300) throughout the country, most known, but some still unknown. It stands as the monument to all, and to the memory of those who lost their lives for no good reason other than they were educated, or had a business or….were men, women or children who lived in a city.

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The location, originally a family farm, is not large. Upon entry, everyone receives a audio guide with headphones. There is no talking. As you listen, the very idea of talking disappears. There is no fast movement. Everyone sits silently and alone on one of the many stone benches, listening. Then, they amble slowly along fenced walkways, almost tiptoeing to the next segment of the tour. Each station on the slow walk holds another story, another record of horror, it’s remnants displayed in small fenced areas, glass containers, the pitted fields once holding thousands of bones. Even certain trees such as the one below, festooned with the sentiments of visitors, hold significance.

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There is scant mention of the eight years of US bombing (more tonnage than the US dropped in all of WWII) that preceded the rise of Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot, or the relationship between that bombing and the trauma that followed. Nor, of course, is there any mention of Henry Kissinger’s role in that strategy. He was its architect, something no PR firm or historical revision can smooth over, making him one of the greatest war criminals of the 20th century.

The final stop on the tour, at the center of the entire ground, is a 17- level stupa, housing the skulls of 5000 of the seventeen thousand who perished there. Each skull is tagged with a colored dot indicating the manner of execution. There are skulls of all ages here. There is a door to go into the humidity-controlled interior. Once inside, there is barely room to move. One has to squeeze around concrete pillars to circumambulate the interior. Donald Trump would not be able to move in here. I can barely move. It is all simply overpowering.

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I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I’ve been to Yad Vashem in Israel. Both are unforgettable. Both were long ago for me. Today, they paled before this experience. Outside the stupa, around the back where I was less visible, I spent some time on my knees. I could not have left without doing so. By the time I did leave, after listening to the voice of a Cambodian talking for 90 minutes about this dark time of their national history, our human history, and after seeing others going through similar inner turmoil about it, I was a quivering puddle of snot.

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The naga and the garuda, normally considered enemies, co-exist here in the design of the stupa.

Tuol Sleng

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In the city of Phnom Penh is what was once a school, a spacious unassuming walled compound housing three-story buildings that were turned by the Khmer Rouge into a prison of torture and death known as SP-21, Security Prison 21. This place was the source of those who were executed at Cheung Ek.

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The feeling of SP-21 is a little different from Choeung Ek. Here, all efforts were made to destroy the records of what occurred as it became clear that the Khmer Rouge would fall. They were not entirely successful, but unlike the killing fields, the evidence of what happened here was never buried. And here, as at Choeung Ek, everyone is listening to recorded commentaries prepared in many languages, moving slowly from one station to another, through classrooms turned into prison cells and torture chambers.

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The exhibit is mostly photographs of prisoners, young communist cadre, torture implements, including depictions and the actual equipment of waterboarding and multiple other methods. I noticed on my way out, passing a book of comments, that someone suggested Donald Trump, being a proponent of torture, be compelled to visit this place. Photographs were prohibited in most of the spaces, though there was the same silence, the same reverence, the same emotional shock of trying to process all the information.

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Wire fencing was erected over the balconies to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

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We will never forget the crimes committed under the regime of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.

I’m unable to go into detail about what happened here, how it was done, the stories told by the survivors, the feeble acts of resistance. After Choeung Ek, I could barely stand to listen to it all. I cut short some of the audio segments detailing the depravity. But I am recalling a quote from Voltaire that I included in a previous post, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” I’m thinking of Trump’s Rasputin right now, Stephen Bannon. Don’t listen to what he says. Watch what he does.

3 thoughts on “Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng

  1. Thank you for sharing this journey, Gary. I worked as a volunteer physician in the Cambodian refugee camps during the insane genocidal times of Pol Pot. These camps were dotted along the border between Thailand & Cambodia, though the border was often just a vague anti-tank ditch, sliced thru the jungle. The Khmer people fled in droves and there were 180,000 refugees in my camp, Khao-I-Dang, alone. What I saw there, the human stories I heard still haunt me today. And I also remember the amazing resilience and gentle kindness of the Khmer people. Elders taught the young; dancers taught Khmer dance to the children; musicians taught children Khmer music, fashioning instruments from whatever materials they could find. This was a place of death and rebirth but above all, I still carry inside the loving and irrepressible spirit of the Khmer people.

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    • Thanks so much, Tom, for sharing that experience. What a watershed event in your life, an indelible experience. I agree, it only takes a short visit to Cambodia, a week in Siem Reap (2015) and now a week here in Phnom Penh, to appreciate the rich culture and proud history of the Khmer.

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  2. This was such a moving post. I really wanted to be there in that space of grieving for the immense pain of humanity with you. Hope all is well and that your 6-session practice is evolving. I am still in a vortex of dissolution, which is mostly horrible, but sometimes gives a glimpse of release.

    C

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    Like

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