Two days in Phnom Phen…
Siem Reap taught us more than enough about the Kingdom of Cambodia, the Angkorian history, and it’s wondrous archaeological attributes. There’s another, much darker side to this country though, and that’s what Phnom Penh had to offer.
Day 296 – Tuesday 14th March 201
It only took six hours to reach Phnom Penh by bus and we left enough time to make something of our afternoon, but only actually got round to doing one thing. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a place that’s commonly known as S-21, was once the secret center of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured by the Khmer Rogue, and I think our visit was more than enough for one day really:
Entry to the museum included a free audio tour with thirty two stops along the way. We learned about how those brought to S-21 (for completely inexcusable reasons like looking intelligent or wearing glasses) were then imprisoned, interrogated, and forced to name family members or close associates in false confessions, who in turn met the same bewildering and horrific fate. It is estimated that between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here, and there are only twelve confirmed survivors.
We wandered around in and out of buildings which were covered in barbed wire to prevent people from escaping, through old interrogation cells, and into rooms where it’s known for a fact that thousands of people lost their lives. It was a harsh and very chilling experience:
Obviously S-21 was an extremely difficult place to visit, but for me there was one particular section that really hit home: Stop 13 – Foreign Victims. Here we were told the story of Kerry Hamill, a young man from New Zealand, who was captured, tortured, interrogated and killed by the Khmer Rogue in 1978. While being detained at S-21 Hamill was forced to falsely confess that he once worked for the CIA, but his confession was laced with clues and messages for his family, and the odd joke too. Hamill wrote that Colonel Sanders (you know, the founder of KFC) was one of his CIA superiors, used his home telephone number as his CIA operative number, and mentioned a Mr S. Tarr, which is believed to be a final message to his mother, who was called Esther. His story left me close to tears, imagining what it must have been like for his family, waving him goodbye as he set off on his journey of a lifetime, never to be seen again.
By the end of the day we thought that we’d seen it all, but we hadn’t, because Phnom Penh is home to more than just Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – there’s Choeung Ek Genocidal Center as well.
Day 297 – Wednesday 15th March 2017
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, better known as The Killing Fields, is the site of a former orchard and mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge. Again we took an audio tour of the grounds, and this time learned about those who were transported to The Killing Fields to be executed, mostly from S-21. It was another harrowing experience, but one that is encouraged by the Cambodia government.
It is not known exactly how many people were killed at Choeung Ek, but nearly nine thousand bodies have been found, many of which indicate that people were battered to death, presumably because beating somebody costs less than shooting them. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, where a Buddhist stupa stands tall, filled with more than 5,000 human skulls on display:
It is thought that by opening S-21 and Choeung Ek to the public, the Cambodian government are minimising the chances of anything like this ever happening again. This opinion is backed by UNESCO, who added S-21 to their Memory of the World Register back in 2009.
The last few days weren’t pretty, and I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed them, but given the chance I wouldn’t change a thing. Stories like this need to be told, so here’s my contribution. Thank you all so much for reading!