By Annie Bower
Yesterday I was made aware of the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields, and the mass genocide. Today it all became real. It started with a visit to Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. The facility originally served as a school, but the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and interrogation center in 1976 (the same year that my sister was born).
Prisoners were put in crude shackles and locked into rooms to sleep on the floor or metal bed frame with no mat, bathroom facilities, or mosquito nets.
Electrocution, lashes, and beatings were used to keep prisoners from disobeying. Interrogators used disgusting means of torture to break the prisoners into confessing an often uncommitted crime (the torture was so graphic that I do not want to write about it). Documentation shows that 10,499 people moved through the prison, which does not include the estimated 2,000 children that moved through the prison. The museum movie reported that 7 of the estimated 12,499 people actually survived Tuol Sleng. Pictures of victims hang in prison cells, stacks of clothing and bones rest in glass cases, skulls are displayed with holes from fatal wounds. This is not ancient history and I was not looking at it through pictures in a text book.
A market stop was scheduled into our day; I think to lighten the mood. Other than the Cambodia specific souvenirs, it was much like all the markets we have been to around the world. Booths crammed together held food, clothing, grocery items, fresh fruit, vegetables, and souvenirs with a rooftop.
Our next stop on the tour was one of the killing fields where the Khmer Rouge committed mass executions. Trucks would arrive at the site twice a month carrying 30-40 prisoners. The prisoners would be taken immediately to the execution site where they were shot, decapitated, beat against a tree, or killed with a blow to the head. Victims would then be thrown into shallow graves with often hundreds of bodies. 86 mass graves serve as the resting spot of 8,985 men, women, and children. We walked around a memorial to a cluster of leafy green trees. The shade, chirping birds, and gentle wind created a deceivingly calm and peaceful place.
It was hard to comprehend that the ditches we were walking beside contained the remains of so many Khmer people. That is, it was hard to comprehend until our translator pointed to the ground we were walking on, “When it rains the water washes away the dirt. Clothes, bones, and teeth come to the surface.” I looked down and was shocked to see three teeth near some half buried clothing.
It seemed almost impossible to avoid the clothing and bones strewn about the walkways. I felt disrespectful walking where so many had died. More people were killed by the Khmer Rouge than by Hitler yet I do not believe that many people would know about the deaths that Pol Pot was responsible for. My sister was born during the first year of the Khmer Rouge rule. Any Cambodian 27 years of age or older lived during the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Only Cambodians under the age of 7 have experienced peace for the entirety of their lives. This is not ancient history and today I did not see history through a textbook; I saw it through pictures, prison cells, bones, clothing, and ditches in the middle of a beautiful field.
Annie Bower , of Somerset, PA, is currently backpacking the globe. You can read more of her stories about traveling the world here .