“Rule 6. Screaming not allowed when being whipped or shocked with electricity.” —Posted sign at Tuol Sleng Prison
Our river cruise was anchored for the night in the Tonle Sap River. After a multi-course dinner including fish curry, fried rice, and beef salad, the twenty-three passengers gathered in the outdoor lounge on the upper deck. The crew, mostly young Cambodian men with poor English skills, were anxious to show off their substantial musical talents.
We listened as they sang their hearts out. Western songs by Elvis Presley, Bette Midler, and Kris Kristofferson. A few Cambodian pop hits. They sang in harmony as well as solo. One played guitar, another was a perfect showman—chin tilted up, smiling, eyes closed as he held a long, soaring note; our tour guide joked that he was going to win Cambodian Idol.
I couldn’t help thinking about how fortunate they were. A few decades earlier, singing those songs would have cost not only their own lives, but the lives of their families and friends.
It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the genocide in Cambodia during the reign of Pol Pot from 1975-1979. A third of the population, nearly three million people, were executed or died of starvation during Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (dubbed “Khmer Rouge” by the French). Nearly every Buddhist monk in the country. Eighty-five percent of the educated population. The goal was not ethnic cleansing, but to remove all traces of education and independent thought in pursuit of a Marxist, medieval, agrarian society run by a few leaders.
Numbers are abstract. We read the statistics, shake our heads and say, “how terrible!” Yvonne and I watched the films “The Killing Fields” and “First They Killed My Father” before we came to Cambodia, because we knew so little about the country’s history. Seeing brutality acted out in movies, safe in my living room, was disturbing but distant. Visiting the country gave me a chance to understand more viscerally.
There wasn’t a person we met over forty who was unaffected by the reign of Pol Pot. Our guide at Angkor Wat, a child at the time, lost multiple siblings; two of them starved to death. The five-year-old brother of our guide on the river cruise was killed in front of his parents for stealing food from a work camp kitchen.
Over fifteen thousand people were tortured at Tuol Sleng Prison (“S-21”), a former high school in Phnom Penh, for the purpose of extracting “confessions” of association with the CIA or the KGB. Those who didn’t die during torture were sent to a nearby killing field. There were 150 similar facilities throughout the country, but Tuol Sleng is now a museum and memorial site.
To call my visit to Tuol Sleng upsetting is an enormous understatement.
I looked into the 20-square-foot cells built inside what had been a high school classroom, where prisoners were shackled and starved between thrice-daily torture sessions. Moaning in pain as they lay on the cement floor afterward earned additional beatings.
Khmer Rouge interrogators took “before” and “after” photos of every detainee to prove to their superiors that they were doing their jobs, lest they themselves be the next to die. Nothing compares to the stomach-turning horror I felt when confronted with walls of black-and-white photos of people tortured to death in the prison, mutilated bodies lying on metal bed frames on a blood-drenched floor.
At Choeung Ek killing field, where Tuol Sleng prisoners were sent for execution, there’s a tree where hundreds of children were killed in front of their parents before the parents themselves were killed. 169 of the dead at Choeung Ek were Khmer Rouge soldiers, publicly beheaded because they questioned their orders or tried to leave.
Not wanting to waste precious bullets, Khmer Rouge carried out their executions far more brutally. A five-story tall memorial is now on the grounds, filled with skulls unearthed when this killing field was later excavated. In an exhibit on the first floor, the skulls are organized by the implements used to kill victims as they kneeled, blindfolded, in front of a pit: bamboo stick, iron rod, hoe, bayonet.
Our guide at Tuol Sleng told us about his recent discovery that one of his neighbors had been a Khmer Rouge soldier. Though they had been friends until that moment, he wanted to kill the man for what he’d done. And then he thought about it and realized that if he killed the former soldier, he would go to prison. He would hurt not only his own family but the other man’s as well. He decided that it was best just to move on.
I asked him, “Have you forgiven him?”
“No, I could never forgive him,” he said, sadness apparent in his face. “But I have accepted him, and we behave as any neighbors do. For the good of the country, I have to.”
I wondered how an entire nation returns from the near-complete destruction of its society and infrastructure. Who educates the children when the teachers are all dead? How does a government run efficiently without an educated class? Decades later, these problems are still very real. But the efforts in place to help Cambodia recover are inspiring. Not just foreign NGOs, but individual Cambodians are making a real difference. Many have done the hard work of getting a good education with limited resources, and are doing the harder work of trying to provide a future for not just their own children, but for all children.
In early 1979, the Vietnamese—who had previously assisted Pol Pot in his rise to power—were moving quickly through Cambodia to rid the country of his supporters. As the Vietnamese advanced toward Tuol Sleng prison, the Khmer Rouge killed everyone they could find, lest there be witnesses left to testify. Four starving children survived, found hiding in a pile of laundry when the soldiers arrived. And seven adults managed to escape during the chaos of the Khmer Rouge retreat. Two of those adults still live, telling their stories to visitors.
At ninety years old, Chum Mey stood strong and tall. He showed us his twisted pinky finger, broken when he tried to block a blow to his head, and the distorted nail on his big toe that grew in where the original one was torn out with pliers. Meeting him was like meeting a holy man. His eyes twinkled when he smiled, which was often. His whole purpose in life now is to educate anyone who will listen about what happened.
His face lit up when I asked him a question: Do you have hope for your country?
“We have peace now. There is enough food for everyone. Yes, I have hope.”