Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Phnom Penh Part 2: The Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng

FACES OF DEATH: A Disclaimer

A disclaimer has to be said prior to going further with this post. It is never pleasant talking about death – most especially if it involves more than a million people tortured to their demise. The following post reeks of a savagery not all that different from the European holocaust, thus the images posted below may disturb. I do not wish to inflict doom and gloom on anyone reading my posts. However, not all of history is fraught with gleeful discoveries. In Cambodia, their past has been coated with bitter memories of pain and loss, heartbreaks, desperation and injustice, the magnitude of which is close to being unfathomable. I hope we learn from their history and pray it doesn’t happen ever again.


Upon checking in at my DV8 Guesthouse, I gave myself an hour for breakfast and to relax for a bit. A shower after, I was walking along a well maintained boulevard running alongside the Tonle Sap – the Sisowath Quay, observing the boats docked by the riverside. A block away, a Khmer in his mid-20’s started tailing me, and though I initially planned on mostly walking around the city, it soon dawned on me that I would eventually require a ride to get to the Killing Fields – the Choeung Ek, which is 17 kilometers away from the city center. Though I was a bit apprehensive with regards to the offer, I knew I was given a very good deal.


Though I will be backriding from a motorcycle (which I’ve never done in the Philippines), it seemed like a great way to see the city. More inexpensive than a tuktuk, a bit uncomfortable too – but it was an offer I couldn’t pass up! There was a little anxiety involved coz one is never quite sure if the stranger you’re riding with is trustworthy. But once again, my gut feel gave the green light! My first agenda was a fast visit at the Mekong Express Bus Office just 4 blocks away. I needed to buy my bus ticket to Saigon which was a cheap $13 (53,200 riel or PhP618). I then decided to start my tour from the farthest on my itinerary – 17 kilometers away, the Killing Fields, south of the city center. So, without a helmet on, I held on tight and off we went.


With wind on my hair, my driver Tei started his introduction asking me where I was billeted. His face turned into a wide grin as he learned of DV8 GH, “Many boo-ti-fool girls. You tell me if you want girls to boom-boom!” LOL. Jeez. A man of many talents. A driver, a guide and a pimp! But I know that he was just being a “good” tour guide, offering what he knows to be a common inquiry from other tourists. In Phnom Penh, the sex trade is quite prevalent, with 80-90% of massages used as fronts for a good lay on the hay. He quoted a price – and boy! THAT was cheap! However, I shall not glorify such trade by posting it here.


Thirty minutes later, we were cruising – with dust on my face - through the countryside until we reached a curb of the road. We turned left at what was a compound of the Memorial at Choeung-Ek, the notorious Killing Fields. I paid for the $2 (8,190 riel or PhP95) entrance fee to a smiling girl at the counter while my driver waited outside. At the front lawn stood a memorial, donated by the Japanese, where several skeletal remains are deposited on glass shelves. It is a sobering experience.

-->The road from where you enter the Killing Fields of Choeung-Ek. Nearby, is the shooting range where gun crazy foreigners can shoot rounds of ammunitions – at a cost, of course.


From the memorial, I roamed the adjacent grounds. There where mounds of burial sites – harrowing witnesses to half a decade of carnage. These were unlike our manicured cemeteries with lush greeneries. Just neglected parcels of land where tortured victims were killed and buried. Some trees and shrubs now litter the area. Other mounds are enclosed with bamboo fences and thatched cottages. There were “Children Trees” – trees from where the children prisoners were beaten and paddled to their death. I was wincing uncomfortably, imagining what actually transpired on the grounds that I walked on.


Between 1975 and 1979, a series of mass graves proliferated all over Cambodia, the majority of which is a few kilometers within the city limits. The best known monument to these sites is the Choeung-Ek, more popularly known as the Killing Fields. During the regime of the communism in then-Kampuchea, the heavy-hand of the ruling Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, exacted their brand of authoritarianism on their people.

Every single citizen who had been known or rumored to have any contact with a foreigner - a foreign aid worker, a missionary, a priest, a diplomat, an employer, a passerby – is given a warning. Two warnings meant getting “re-educated” which was equivalent to being sent to the Tuol Sleng prison camp or the Choeung-Ek where they are tortured to their death.


Many of these people were made to dig their own graves as the sheer number of prisoners overwhelmed the soldiers. As many as 30,000 were housed at the Choeung-Ek at any given time, most of whom are executed within 24 hours.

-->The Memorial at Choeung-Ek where some of the skeletal remains of the victims of the massacre have been entombed. You can get inside the skimpy four corners to get a closer look.

Non-descript mounds and burial grounds now lined by trees. There are several of these mounds in the adjacent area.

-->Some of these burial mounds are cordoned off.

Stacks of children’s bones are hastily laid on the ground for display.


TUOL SLENG - The Hill of the Strychnine Tree

From the Killing Fields, as we headed back to the city, but we soon realized we were running with a flat tire necessitating a detour somewhere to have the tire vulcanized. I figured it was a good time to try their local carinderia. I invited Tei for lunch- 2,000 kip ($0.49 or PhP28) each for a pork rice meal and a 1,500 kip ($0.37 or PhP17.40) bottled water. Not bad! From there, we were on our way to S-21 (Security Prison 21), the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which used to be Pol Pot’s secret prison camp.

Others prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were brought to the Tuol Sleng (in Khmer, it literally means “Hill of the Poisonous Tree”) – a former high school building that was converted into a prison camp in 1975 where tortures were further implemented. It is a 3-storey building that has witnessed various methods of barbarisms and instruments used to inflict hardship on innocent civilians. Though I was able to get a copy of a dvd documentary on the S-21 a year ago in Siem Reap, I never realized the gravity of being there myself, feeling the cold brick walls of small holding cells, torture chambers, and cubicles that won’t allow you to stretch your arms. At each room, there are several displays of photos of prisoners, collaborators and their prison guards, their stats and designations (farmers, wives, etc.) and their gripping anecdotes that led to their incarceration. I could stay there all day reading those horror stories. These are strictly for the non-depressives.

-->Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum fa├žade - formerly the S-21

At some point, I found myself embarrassingly misty eyed while reading the stories of children from the display photos. I found the experience an emotional one. And I had to consciously control myself as there was a Dutch girl following my trail as I read anecdotes from room to room.


To save on ammunition, other gadgets were used for the execution: hammers, axe handles, bars, bamboo sticks. Wives of ministers and even their newborn child were not spared. To highlight these acts of barbarism, a photographer was even assigned to document each prisoner, making sure their photographs were taken before they were to be executed. As if that wasn't enough, some of them were even photographed during these tortures and post mortem.

After neighboring China invaded in 1979, officially ending this genocidal rule – Polpot and his red army had to flee – and a stack of 6,000 negatives and photographs, and written documents were recovered. Some 200,000 people were said to have perished from these heinous torture chambers and a staggering 1.7 million from all forms of starvation, persecution and death all over the country.


Pol Pot was eventually captured. He died in his cell, believed to have been poisoned. If these were glimpses of sweet revenge, the victorious spirit escapes me. There is nothing triumphant about death – Pol Pot’s or the 1.7 million others.
These killing fields and museums remind people of the horrors of an authoritarian regime; a bitter reminder of a reign that went to the iron fists of mad men.

-->Single cells at the ground floor made of bricks.

-->Holding cells at the 2nd floor made of wood.

-->A view from the second floor hallway.

-->Hundreds of photographs are on display at each room. Some contain their anecdotes.

-->Women with children. The 2nd photo is the wife of the foreign affairs minister and her newborn child.

The S-21 taken during the fall of the regime in 1979.

The S-21 today - a genocide museum (above).

This is the Eye in the Sky!


Twin said...

Scary the skulls! The cells look like there are spirits roaming around...can feel the presence of the tortured victims.

Anonymous said...

ohmygod. this post gives me the willies.

eye in the sky said...

@ twin: once you set yourself "in the moment", it would be pretty easy to imagine all things.

eye in the sky said...

@ yanessa: i think that's the "effect" they wanted to elicit from their visitors. can get creepy.

Unknown said...

ang morbid naman ng mga photos. kakapangilabot.

jepayuki said...

hello there eye, with those photographs of the prisoners somehow i felt i was there too feeling their pain and suffering. who could have imagined that the "children trees" would refer to the place where the little ones were killed, if it was supposed to stand for a garden for those angels? hay, such was the suffering these people endured
during the decade we were born!

your photos effectively spoke to me as it resembled a documentary that i am always fond of watching in television. the most recent of this kind was the documentary that GMA aired about the ozone disco victims. striking stories like these interest me a lot. i hope sometime soon to see the genocide museum for myself.

this post is both real and relevant, although tragic it reminds us of how history has been able to shape the world that we inhabit today.

Cathy Pena said...

hey. that is one kickass documentary blog post! wish i can visit that place. :-<

pamatayhomesick said...

grabe pards..medyo tumayo balahibo ko...pero hindi sa takot..parang ramdam ko kasi ang paghihirap nila nuon.

eye in the sky said...

@lucy: yes, its a morbid topic. i found it hard writing about it too, but some topics are just not cotton-candy pleasant. :-<

eye in the sky said...

hey jepay, thanks for the nice words, as usual. i didn't get to watch that docu on the ozone victims, i wish i had. deaths aren't very pleasant to talk about, but history has to be learned and re-told - repeatedly - so that some mistakes aren't to be made in the future. i used to consider the visit to the "killing fields" and the tuol sleng as just another of those touristy checklists, but boy! - how could i be so wrong. some places take you by the heart.

that part of my trip left an indelible mark in my consciousness, and i somehow wish it will, to anyone who gets to read this particular post. it turned out to be the easiest to write, but emotionally draining. it just gets to me. mabigat sa dibdib.

eye in the sky said...

hey cathy, thanks for your kickass comment, lol. made me smile despite the topic.

eye in the sky said...

@ ever: sinabi mo pa. just watching at those display photos in every room, and reading some of their stories as well - it's just hard to ignore the palpable emotionality of the whole thing. bato lang siguro ang di makaramdam ng awa.

escape said...

quite an eerie place to visit. but it surely is something significant. because the past will definitely teach us something that shouldn't happen again.

eye in the sky said...

exactly, dong. history is there to teach us a few important things.