“When one with honeyed words but evil mind
Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”
― Euripides, Orestes
I awoke bright and early and tried to mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. I couldn’t eat my breakfast, and so after a little tea and some juice, I set off on for my morning tours. Each nation has its own dark moments – my country has many and, as I type, our inaction in aiding the plight of refugees from the Middle East is currently hanging over our collective heads like a dark cloud. Visiting Cambodia was never going to be about sunbathing and cocktails, too much has happened there for pure fun and frolics, and I knew visiting the S-21 prison and Killing Fields was going to be emotional, but nothing quite prepared me for my encounter with a survivor.
Our guide, a friendly, well-spoken gentleman was personally impacted the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge. His father was an academic who disappeared without trace. He talked about the fate of such people, political prisoners and anybody the Khmer Rouge deemed a threat. Years later, he now works at S-21 and continues his search to discover what happened to his father. Imagine being a little child, the government is murdering its people and your father simply doesn’t come home one day. I sobbed but didn’t want our guide to see me. After an emotional pause, and with a smile, he told our group that his family felt extreme pride in his father’s action: he explained that although they believe that his father was captured, tortured and executed, they know that he never gave up his family, for they are still here, and that was the greatest act of courage. It was deeply moving.
The prison was particularly horrific: metal beds with hand and feet cuffs, torture rooms and areas where mass rapes, a common theme of the period (and sadly, still today) were carried out. Guards frequently inspected cells to ensure prisoners had no means to commit suicide. After once prisoner jumped to his death, electrified barbed wire fences were put up around the building, which was previously a secondary school.
Following the tour of the S-21 prison, I visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge murdered an estimated 1.5-3 million people, including up to 1 million at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. As you enter, you see a beautiful Buddhist Stupa. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was filled with 8000 skulls from the surrounding graves. If you remove your shoes, you are permitted to enter and can purchase flowers and incense for the lost ones. The skulls are arranged by gender and age, and evidence of crushed skulls and bullet holes are obvious.
The Killing Tree was the most horrific thing I have ever seen. Babies and small children were held by their ankles and swung so their heads bashed fatally into the tree, often with their mothers watching. These women would then be sexually assaulted and murdered before their corpses added to one of the so-far discovered 20,000 mass graves. Children were murdered for fear that, should they grow up, they would seek revenge, though given the scale of deaths; it seems that the murderers enjoyed it. How can you hurt a child? It is beyond my comprehension.
I bought a coconut, sat on a step and embraced the eerie silence, imagining the screams and terror of those who lived this. This was 8 months ago and I still cannot understand how people behaved with such evil but, even more confusing (and inspiring), is how Cambodian people seem so kind and open, after such recent atrocities. There are moments in our lives when we are consumed with sadness; I do not remember a time in my life when I felt so empty. I left feeling broken. We haven’t learnt anything; the loss of life and abuse of human rights across the world continues. I wrote about my feelings on Phnom Penh here and my lack of desire to return remains. However, I hope my future will include engaging with more Cambodians and learning more from their gentleness and ability to look forward to more positive experiences.