A Somber Day at the S-21 Genocide Museum & the Killing Fields

(Warning, this is a rather graphic and gruesome post.)

My primary reason for making a stop in Cambodia’s capitol was to visit the Killing Fields – so on my first full day there, I did just that. I arranged for a tuk-tuk driver for the day (I’m getting used to this having-a-driver business!) to take me there, along with a few other places; and first thing in the morning, in an attempt to beat some of the ongoing stifling 100+ degree heat, he arrived and we were on our way.

I wondered what the day would be like and was often transported back to the shell-shocked days in 1999 when I visited Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau. The quality of the tender sadness was familiar to me but I imagined the day would have its own qualities yet to unfold.

While I’ve been on a feverish photographic bender for most of the trip so far and especially the last two weeks, on this day, my camera stayed tucked far away. As I walked through the prison and later, the Killing Fields, the images penetrated deeper than any photo could. I also realized that I didn’t want to hide behind the lens, focused on taking photographs, ‘doing’ something – I didn’t want to use the camera as an emotional buffer, a device to separate or remove me from the intensity of the place. So I didn’t. I just wanted to ‘be’ with the experience. I also realized I could more reverently remember and respect the legacies of those who lost their lives without the clicking of my shutter. I’ve had this sense in only one other place in my life and that was at the Nazi concentration camps. The similarities were already surfacing.

Since that day, four days ago now, the camera has stayed away and I’ve enjoyed just being in the moment, having experiences and letting go of the desire to record them. Oh, it will come out again and surely before I leave the magical beach I’ve landed upon. But for yet another day, I’m on a camera vacation.

Our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Museum, the place known as “S-21,” a former high school turned prison under the Khmer Rouge. Fortunately I arrived early before many tourists were there, so I was able to wander about the grounds in meditative reflection without disturbance. It’s laid out in a square kind of plaza with long rectangular buildings on three levels. The outside of the second and third floors are covered in barbed wire, lest the prisoners, who were rarely allowed out, got any ideas about trying to kill themselves by jumping off the ledges when they could see the light of day. Inside those levels, tiny cubicles, no wider than three feet and no longer than six feet, held scores of prisoners. The once-former windows of the school were blocked off. There was no air inside, only darkness. The wooden doors of each cubicle still hung from the thresholds. I entered one and then another, closing the doors behind me and sitting there quietly for awhile, trying to imagine what it could possibly have been like for these people. Nothing in my life experience could even begin to inform me of this. But still, I sat and I sat; and before long, the claustrophobia of being in there only by myself forced me to heave the doors open and walk away freely. No such freedom was available to the people held so torturously inside here. The cells were mostly empty, with only the leg irons that kept the prisoners immobile still chained to the floor.  But nothing else. I stepped out gratefully into the steaming light of day as sweat poured down my body.

I wandered quietly through the other rooms, large, expansive, dark, damp, tiled-floored spaces where the newly-arrived people were ‘processed,’ some of which were now empty. Those which weren’t empty were filled with photographic displays of hundreds, no, thousands of people – faces lined up one after another on endless easels. 17,000 people passed through this prison, it is estimated; and like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge diligently kept records of all the detainees. The eyes, the coffee-bean dark eyes of each and every person stared out at me as I walked by their desperate gazes. They had numbers on placards hanging around their necks as if they were criminals. They were not. Most of the photos are about 8 x 10 in size, but there are some large poster-sized ones which are particularly haunting. Most are children or very young people. They look terrified. And the easels go on and on and on. From one large room to the next, more and more easels, more and more photos, on the fronts and the backs of the easels – so many faces, so many faces, faces only with numbers attached to them. I had to take deeper, slower breaths as I continued on, determined not to look away, to keep making contact with these nameless, beautiful faces. I moaned an audible aching sigh – I wanted the easels to stop. But they didn’t. They kept on. Some rooms also held display cases of the torture devices used against the prisoners. I simply couldn’t linger in front of them, but my eyes were glued to the photographs. And as the tears began to flow from my eyes, my ability to see them grew hazier; but still, I looked and still I cried. Each and every one of these people, these children was tortured and killed, murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable by the Khmer Rouge as they held their country hostage from 1975 – 1979. No actually, even more brutal than imagination allows.

It is estimated that two to three million people were killed during this time, 20 – 25% of the entire Cambodian population. It’s impossible now to meet any adult person in Cambodia who hasn’t lost a loved one from this brutal reign of terror.

Outside in the square plaza, an elderly man with short gray hair and wrinkled skin is selling books – he was one of only seven prisoners who were still alive when the Vietnamese liberated this place and one of even less who is still alive now. I tried to make eye contact with him – somehow I desperately wanted him to know of my sorrow – but he was busy, focused on showing photos of him taken with other tourists and getting the ones in front of his table to buy his book. I smiled sadly and politely and moved on.

I sat on a bench for some time, looking around me at the complex of buildings. In one corner of the plaza, there’s a wooden structure with two poles and a large beam between them – when this place was a school, it was where the children swung, happily and care-free, I imagine. But the Khmer Rouge used it as a torture device, where they installed hooks along the beam, hung prisoners there mercilessly until they lost consciousness and then dunked them into large round ceramic bowls of sewage water which sat on the ground just below these gallows – this almost-drowning forced them back to consciousness as they continued to be tortured.

I walked on, found my way back to my tuk-tuk and driver and we headed to the Killing Fields. It’s a ways out of the city, through small villages and the countryside, where fallow, dried-up rice paddies await the coming rains. The 40-minute ride, with the minor relief of a hot breeze gave me time to take some recovering breaths from the affects of the prison. While my tears had dried, I felt hollow inside, empty and almost devoid of substance.

We arrived at the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek in mid-morning and again before the tourists descended upon it. I was grateful to have some moments of silence before the busloads arrived. This place, taking up several acres of land, is where bodies were brought after the people were killed at the S-21 prison. There are over 80 large impressions, rather depressions, scattered throughout the land. And this is where the mass graves of thousands of bodies were found soon after the Khmer Rouge was defeated. A dusty, grassy trail leads the way through the unmarked graves. A large tree trunk has a placard in front of it, describing it as the place where babies were killed, held by their legs and smashed up against the tree. It stands as a still, silent sentinel, brutalized too, in having been made into such a weapon.

In the middle and towering over the grounds, there’s a large structure, made into a tall, bell-like shape of a Buddhist stupa, built to hold the remains of the corpses that were found on the land. It’s several stories high and is a place of great importance and reverence to those whose lives were lost. Marble stairs on four sides (the 4 directions?) lead up to the glass enclosure. There are signs here (and everywhere on the land) that say “Please be quiet.” I was grateful for them. It is required that hats and shoes are removed before ascending the stairs. Flowers and incense are on offer for a small donation to place in memory of these tender lives.

In the local Buddhist tradition, it is critical for peoples’ bodies to be rightfully buried when they die, lest they get stuck in a sorrowful after-life. Specifically, body parts must be buried together when a person dies; otherwise, it’s believed, their souls are doomed to wander the earth for all eternity. There was no such possibility for the people whose bodies were strewn all along here – hence this sacred structure was built with the intention to honor and hold not only their bones, but their spirits, too. A glass case inside the stupa has many levels with different bones on each of them – the very bottom holds the clothes that were found when the bodies were exhumed from the land. The next level, at about eye level, holds more than 8000 skulls and it continues up from there, with leg, hip and jaw bones continuing up and up and up. There’s a small, tight passageway all around the glass enclosure that I was barely able to fit in and walk around – this brought me yet closer to the bodily remains.

As I contemplatively walked through the grounds, more and more tourists arrived. Guides accompanied many of them and I was able to overhear some of the detailed and almost matter-of-fact descriptions the guides used in explaining what they were looking at. I was struck with how they held nothing back – they didn’t sugarcoat anything or use euphemisms of any kind. I noticed some people in the groups move out of earshot of the horrific descriptions and details of the horrors uncovered here. Others stood mesmerized. I heard a guide make mention of one of the mass graves in which all the bodies had been be-headed. He went on to explain that the large, spiny branches of the palm trees were used to saw peoples’ heads off – all the more torturous in the lengthy process it took to do the job. After a while, I too moved out of earshot, preferring to stay in the silence that provided the slightest comfort as I continued my walk.

Some tourists walked by, giggling and talking loudly – I couldn’t help but for a moment to turn into the “Be Quiet Here” police. I scolded them and in my sense of frustration at them, I realized it was hardly their animated laughing that was most disturbing to me.

Soon it was time to take my leave. I sat for awhile nearby the stupa, collecting blossoms from the plumeria trees that had been planted around the circumference of the main square on which the stupa was built. I took in the sweet, pungent fragrance of these most beautiful flowers – I made a design of them on the table at which I sat. I let their sweetness fill me up. And I felt grateful to the people who planted them, reminding everyone who walks through of the sweetness of life than continues to prevail, even in the midst of such brutal and overwhelming bitterness.

It was approaching early afternoon as we made our way back to Phnom Penh – life was still going on all around us as we meandered on the dusty, clogged-with-activity roads. It seemed unreal to me, this carrying on as if everything was normal. And yet, this is what we do, us humans. We carry on. Maybe nothing is ‘normal, ‘but we move forward anyway. And it’s what these most resilient and upbeat people have done – most all of them living in abject poverty and having come out of one of the darkest times the 20th century has known. Yes, they carry on.

Although I feel certain there is deep scarring and wounds from this atrocious genocide, I’m also struck with the quality of open, friendly, kind energy I’ve experienced from the Cambodian people I’ve met. I’ve held some trepidation about how they would respond to my answers to their questions about where I’m from – and although they have every reason to hold resentment or anger, I have felt none directed at me. They simply do not equate our government’s role with the Khmer Rouge with me as someone from the United States; and for that, I am grateful.

What I see is warm, smiling, dare I say, ‘happy’ people. In denial? I don’t think so. Yes, they are graciously generous with their smiles and I think they’re genuine. But they’re also just as open to  share the sordid details about losing their mother or father or sister or brother under the Pol Pot regime – like the Killing Fields Tour Guides, they don’t sugar coat the truth of what they’ve endured; and while there is surely plenty of anguish and pain behind those smiles, they don’t seem stuck or frozen in that time, but appear to me to be determined to heal and move forward. They recognize and appreciate the peace they now enjoy that only 30 short years ago had been stripped away from them.

I’m struck by this and by thinking back to my concentration camp visits and to my time of living in Germany. The German people, I think, are a dramatic contrast to this kind of energy. Gross generalization, no doubt, but these are not a people from whom it’s easy to elicit a warm and friendly smile. I’ll even go so far as to theorize that they don’t seem nearly as far along in their healing process of WW II as these Cambodian people seem to be. I was rarely able to elicit smiles from Germans on the streets or in any public places, and this was after 3+ years of living there! It seemed to me that the entire country was suffering from PTSD and it was hard for me to find anyone willing to talk about the horrors of Nazism. Who knows if this comparison even means anything – I’m just struck with these thoughts as I reflect on my experiences.

I’m also reminded of how distraught I felt the evening after my concentration camp visit. I returned to Warsaw, Poland exhausted and enveloped in sadness. I plodded my way down the streets of this ancient city, found some food which I ate perfunctorily and wandered aimlessly, knowing where I was, but feeling lost, bereft and alone. I came upon a man with whom I had a small conversation – he, too, had ‘coincidentally’ been at Auschwitz that day. In no time and with little attraction or fanfare, we found our bodies intertwined, craving the comfort and refuge of simple human touch. I found solace in that anonymous connection and in the kindness we offered each other although now I don’t remember his name nor could I call up his face.

But here in Cambodia, I had no such longing. While I again felt the desperate sadness of this element of the human condition and while I could certainly benefit from the solace of human touch and tenderness, I wasn’t in that place of agonizing need. I let myself feel it, let it wash over and through me and then I carried on, encouraged perhaps, by the smiling faces all around me. I continued exploring other parts of the city, had an early dinner and made my way ‘home’ … alone. And there I found the place of quiet stillness and peace within myself; and later, I spoke with my sister and my friend Mary. And those talks, across many miles and oceans, reminded me of the more powerful force of love in the world and how it will always, always prevail.  This time around, that solace was enough.

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been simultaneously reading “First They Killed My Father,” a memoir written by Luong Ung about how she and her family lived through (and some of them died) the Khmer Rouge take-over. I finished the book today; and it, too, was a brutally honest, no-holes-barred account of one family’s struggle through this dark hell. I was also able to learn a lot about Cambodian history and the details of what this country and it’s people has endured. It’s an important read for anyone interested in a personal account of the Khmer Rouge.

Several times I wanted to stop reading; like those tourists at the Killing Fields, I didn’t want to hear anymore of the gruesome details. But I also felt that in reading the brutal honesty of her words, even as an anonymous reader, I was bearing witness to her truth and contributing, somehow, to her ultimate healing … and for that reason alone, my hands continued to turn the pages as my tears dampened and smeared her words.

The juxtaposition of writing this post in an impossibly beautiful place is part of this human condition, isn’t it? I’m on a gorgeous beach, surrounded with, yes, the ever-present Khmer smiles – and peacefulness abounds as I learn of this history of this war-torn place. And it’s holding it all that matters most, I think. It’s letting my heart bleed in sadness for what has happened here while I melt with joy at the beauty of tonight’s achingly sublime sunset.

It’s all here in Cambodia – so as I prepare for sleep, listening to the waves gently rippling in onto the shore just inches away from my beach hut, I feel blessed once again and I send those blessings out, out, out into the world!

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One Response to A Somber Day at the S-21 Genocide Museum & the Killing Fields

  1. Christina says:

    This is a comment from a friend of a friend who subscribes to my blog. I was so appreciative of her reflections on my comments, that I wanted to include them here. Her thoughts about the differences in spiritual perspectives is quite astute and provocative, I think!

    Here’s what Nancy has to say:

    Thanks for Christina’s account of the Killing Fields, Jon. Did you see the movie? It was a hard one to sit through.

    That Christina has taken on this mission of witnessing such horrors is in itself an extraordinary choice. That the Cambodian people have found such meaningful ways to keep that memory alive for the generations to come is truly a testament to their spiritual maturity and courageous honesty. Her reflections are so moving. I was reminded of something the daughter of our friends Allen & Judy (who bought our milling business) said when she came back from her studies in Vietnam. She too was impressed with the warmth and genuine good will extended to her, an American, by these people who had been so brutally treated by her kind. She thought it was their Buddhist training that made the difference, and saw it manifested in several incidents. They do not prescribe to permanence, and practice “moving on”, healing through love and compassion. And unlike Westerners who adopt the Buddhist principles, these people are culturally attuned to them, don’t think about it, because it’s part of their collective unconscious. Germans are largely Christian, full of guilt and dread and darkness. It was interesting to read Christina’s comparison of the two experiences she had among such different cultural values.

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