On Sunday we passed up some of Phnom Penh's more colorful sites for a trip to the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. These two sites serve to remind Cambodians and the world of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the movement known as the Khmer Rouge. In the time between April 17, 1975, when Pol Pot and his followers took over Cambodia, and 1979, when the invading Vietnamese liberated the country, thousands and perhaps millions of Cambodians were slaughtered by Pol Pot's forces.
Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as "S-21" was the most notorious of the locations where Cambodian citizens were imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and killed. Choeung Ek is the most well known of over 300 "killing fields" throughout Cambodia where men, women and children were taken and slaughtered.
A former secondary school, Tuol Sleng was turned into a prison and the classrooms divided into cells for holding torturing and interrogating prisoners. Some of the former cells have pictures on the walls painted by one of the survivors after his release. I am told he became quite famous and died only recently. His images are a powerful reminder of what happened here.
When the prison was liberated in 1979, it is estimated that some 17,000+ people had passed through its doors and had either died during interrogation and torture, or had been transported to Choeung Ek where they were killed. Forces entering the prison in 1979 found 14 bodies of prisoners who had died there, and only 7 survivors.
One of these, Bou Meng, was an artist whose life had been spared so that he could paint portraits of Pol Pot and other revolutionary leaders. His book is available at the prison, where he autographs copies and tells of the horrors he witnessed while a prisoner there.
Choeung Ek, the location of the "killing fields," is on the surface an idyllic site. A well-done audio tour takes one past the green grass and trees to the site of the atorcities committed there some thirty-five plus years ago. A memorial stupa located on the grounds houses the skulls and bones of some 11,000 of the victims, which have been cleaned and categorized by age and sex.
To visit these sites is is sobering, and helps one to understand in some small way the suffering of the Cambodian people over the past 40 years, and to appreciate how far the country has come since that terrible time.