A City Surrounded

posted  by Megan Swanson

Driving into Pnom Penh, the streets lined with shacks built with straw and tin sheets slowly give way to brick and stucko apartments stacked high with metal partitions between each balcony. These dividers are metal fans between each cell of the complex; several have barbed wire circled around the spokes, making the decorative appear dangerous.

Despite the divisions, several apartment residents sit on the edges of their balconies chatting with neighbors similar to neighbors in the states chatting through their own fences, sans barbed wire.

These conversations are lost to the bustle of the streets below, curbside businesses selling car parts, cellular phones, clothing, produce and street food. Across town, there is a fence surrounding a plot of land filled with beautiful trees and greenery, small purple flowers dotting the ups and downs in the landscape. The tops of the fence have rusted barbed wire rounded around the chain links. No conversations are floating around the boundaries here. Here, in the former killing field of Choeung Ek, there is only silence.

During the years of 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge used this land as the last stop for the tortured and hopeless souls sent from Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Flowers now dot the scars in the land where mass graves used to hold thousands of brutally murdered innocents.

Under the pretense that they were being transferred to a different location, prisoners from Tuol Sleng were transported to Choeung Ek in order to be killed by guards wielding bamboo sticks, garden hoes, shovels and rifle butts.

I try to step away from the group for a second and slowly close my eyes, take my hands behind my back and place myself in their shoes. Of course, this is close to impossible, but the motions emulate helplessness and hopelessness. The Khmer Rouge revolution that was supposed to restore peace and do away with corruption lied its way into the hearts and minds of Cambodians in the seventies.

A few yards away, there is a tiered stupa filled with seventeen shelves of bones that belonged to the ictims of Choeung Ek. My reflection stares back with skulls superimposed over my t-shirt. I am standing to one side of the stupa while tourists pose for pictures at the front and place yellow and white carnations in several vases at the base of the stupa. No one is standing near me as I read the cards denoting age ranges of the skulls. Fifteen- to twenty- year-olds fill the layer staring back at me. My brother and I would have been placed on that tier.

In one of the deep indentations in the land, a pile of old carnations rest next to burned trash — remnants of old prayers and odes to memory all gone.

Small tokens of prayer or lost memories are burned and destroyed right next to the graves that held the people they give tribute to. Our prayers are lost on that land, along with any justice that will come to the Khmer Rouge.

As we walk out of the gates and onto our bus, the barbed wire fades into the distance, but the imprint that the Killing Fields have left on our heavy hearts will dwell forever inside a fence built by a regime determined to dehumanize its own people.

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The Haunting Beauty of the Killing Fields

posted by Satyam Kaswala

All I remember was the sound. I might have seen a body catapult into the air, but it was too quick and too blurry to know for certain. A motorbike carrying multiple people tried to overtake our bus on the way to Phnom Penh. The motorbike driver did not see the oncoming car. The blindness proved fatal. The crash unfolded through the broken prism of windows lining the left wall of our bus. Several people were killed. That was the story gleaned from the others on the bus. But all I remember for sure was the sound, a lightening quick thud. It was the piercing sound of souls leaving their bodies.

Despite my own reservations, I glanced back, pulled by the same dark human instinct that makes people slow down at car accidents with no intention of getting out and helping, even when the road ahead is open. A woman’s body spread stomach down on a bed of hot pavement. Shards of broken glass glistened on the road. The tumbled motorbike rested next to her. I could not escape the fact that had we not been on that bumpy bus traveling to Phnom Penh at that moment, that woman (and others I did not see) would not have died. In some strange way, by shaking our group out of our comfortable spaces and dropping us into that haunting mental and emotional terrain, the Killing Fields had come to us before we physically came to them. For even before arriving there, the presence of death could not be escaped.

“HERE WAS THE PLACE WHERE A TRUCKS TRANSPORTING VICTIMS TO BE EXTERMINATED FROM TUOL SLENG PRISON AND OTHER PLACES IN THE COUNTRY STOPPED. THE TRUCKS WOULD ARRIVE 2 OR 3 TIMES A MONTH OR EVERY 3 WEEKS. EACH TRUCK HELD 20 TO 30 FRIGHTENED, BLINDFOLDED AND SILENT PRISONERS.

WHEN THE TRUCKS ARRIVED, THE VICTIMS WERE LED DIRECTLY TO BE EXECUTED AT THE DITCHES AND PITS OR WERE SENT TO BE DETAINED IN THE DARKEN AND GLOOMY PRISON NEARBY.

AFTER JANUARY 07, 1979, ONE TRUCK REMAINED, BUT IS HAS SINCE BEEN TAKEN AWAY.”

That was scribbled in white letters on the sign that welcomed us to Choeung Ek, one of several Killing Fields where from 1975 to 1979 the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime took masses of innocent Cambodians to die. Estimates of the number of people slaughtered usually hover from 1.7 to 2.5 million lives. History lives in shadows, and the Khmer Rouge genocide is one of its darkest moments still.

As I stood on the patch of dirt in front of the sign, I felt the blood in my feet recede towards my head as if trying to escape from that ground that had already known too well what it was like to be dampened with blood. It was the same dirt where those frightened Cambodians, hoarded like animals, first stumbled off of those trucks and onto the soil of their graveyards. I could no longer stand in front of the sign. I flopped onto a bench behind it with a view of the entrance gate. There was a row of trees lining the dirt patch where the grass began. The trees all tilted away from the truck stop and towards the entrance, as if yearning to rip their roots out of that dirt, hop to the road and escape. They were frozen in time, aghast. They appeared frightened and stood in silence. Yet unlike the victims, they were not blindfolded; they were witnesses to the faces of each and every prisoner who passed. Yet they were still trapped there, and would have to live with the horror, the images and the memory long after most of us are gone, in silence.

In the distance a bus pulled into the field entrance. It must have been traveling the same route the trucks did. The bus, filled with tourists instead of prisoners, swerved to a stop. The trucks would have inched closer and closer, rattling to a halt right next to me. Hot dust billows into the air. The engine dies. Doors slam. Khmer Rouge officers yank the prisoners out. I tried to imagine the victims’ faces when their feet first sunk into that Killing Field dirt. The sign said they were silent, and I would have believed it were it not for the soft wind. For in it, I could hear echoes of the screaming.

A towering Buddhist stupa jutted from the field as a memorial for the dead. It contained rows of excavated human skulls piled on top of each other, arranged by age and gender and numbering in the thousands. Above the front-side glass display rested a rectangular window with nine columns wedged in between the black space. The stupa was erected as a memorial, but this columned black space still was more of a prison window. Not even in death did these victims of the Killing Fields find freedom.

I sauntered past the stupa and towards the heart of the field. Rags once wrapped on victim’s bodies still rustled in the dirt. Before long, the sun that pounded on my back stopped. I was in the shadow of a monstrous, sprawling tree whose roots clutched the ground in mazes.

“MAGIC TREE. THE TREE WAS USED AS A TOOL TO HANG A LOUDSPEAKER WHICH MAKE SOUND LOUDER TO AVOID THE MOAN OF VICTIMS WHILE THEY WERE BEING EXECUTED.”

Unlike the trees that leaned away from the truck stop, the magic tree had been forced out of its silence. Yet the tree, like the Killing Field, was unspeakably beautiful. I was guiltily struck by the verdant, gently rolling patches of grass, the lilies floating on the sparkling pond in the center of the field, the elegantly carved dirt paths that slithered through the bright greenery, and the cryptic, comforting trees whose shadows dotted the land. Everywhere my eyes landed, I nearly tried to sully the beauty by imagining the shape of the woman’s curled body from the accident piled all over this field during the genocide instead of on the rocky pavement the day before. But it was difficult. Nature’s beauty masked a quiet, graceful brutality.

Later that day, our had group met Chem Mey, one of the handful of survivors of Tuol Sleng. Tuol Sleng was a former high school turned death prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured nearly 20,000 Cambodians. The prison’s name translates to “Hill of the Poisonous Trees.” Chem Mey’s ability to fix typewriters saved his life. He was a gentle man with bright, moist eyes, the kind that seemed to have been overflowing with tears that never quite flooded out.

The Killing Field was a mass grave, yet there was so much life sprouting on every single inch of its earth. Both death and rebirth flirted with each other and danced in the wind that tickled my skin as I walked and hovered into my lungs as I cautiously breathed. The juxtaposition of the two added a crushing poignancy to suffering. But as Chem Mey and the land itself demonstrated, something survived. Chem Mey gave birth to his own life again after the Khmer Rouge simply by surviving the regime that millions did not. And the bones of the victims of the Killing Field became seeds. Surely some part of their souls still dwelled in the nature that covered the field. There was some part of life that the Kmher Rouge could not touch and could not kill. Something still grows. If there are things more reassuring than hope, that is close.

Cambodia’s Silent Souls

posted by Crissinda Ponder

“While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”

When I read these words posted outside of the Tuol Sleng prison, now a genocide museum, in Phnom Penh, I wondered how difficult it must have been for victims of Khmer Rouge torture and turmoil to be quiet.

When I heard the story of Mr. Chum Mey, one of only a handful of Tuol Sleng survivors, I was curious of how he could let the tears flow without making a sound.

When I saw the Magic Tree at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, I imagined how great the hanging loudspeaker’s volume must have been to drown out the moans of those being executed.

The visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, put me in an uncomfortable—but eye opening—space. My ignorance of Cambodia’s history made me feel as if I wasn’t connected to this very different world. I understand that if I didn’t decide to travel here I still wouldn’t know about its past.

Why was the Khmer Rouge era not covered in our history books? Why doesn’t the American public know about the genocide that happened between 1975 and 1979? Why did this happen? Why did the U.S. even let this happen?

I know the Khmer Rouge organization was created to address the political needs of Cambodian citizens who were fed up with the governmental structure at the time, but how could its leaders convert so many young people into angry, machine gun-toting murderers with no remorse?

After visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields, many of my questions were answered, but I still could not wrap my mind around a specific reason why all of this happened.

All the death and destruction seemed so unnecessary.

Tuol Sleng didn’t feel like the genocide museum it claims to be–when we arrived, the prison that nearly 20,000 people experienced 30 years before stared back at me.

Every inch of the facility was comprised of gloom. The entire property was unforgiving—the sky looking down lit up the area with gray light.

This place, once for education, is best known for stripping away the identities of many Khmer people.

Mr. Chum Mey endured 12 days and nights of unbearable torture there. The only reason it stopped is because he falsely confessed to being a spy and working against the Khmer Rouge. He implicated other innocent people as well—it was the only way to stop the beating, electrocution and nail pulling.

Walking from room to room, I tried to imagine what life was like for victims of this atrocious facility and its staff. I could faintly hear their moans.

Their moans were ignored at Choeung Ek. The Killing Fields forced the souls of its victims to be silent forever.

Now a place filled with tourists gazing at skulls encased in glass and mass graves filled with fresh nature, Choeung Ek is a quiet place.

Victims’ clothes still decorate parts of the ground. Bone and teeth remnants peer out through the parts of soil where life doesn’t grow.

Together, Tuol Sleng and The Killing Fields remind me of something Dith Pran’s character in the 1984 film, “The Killing Fields,” said:

“Here, only the silent survive.”

But those who perished also fell silent. Cambodia is finding its voice, however, through people like Mr. Chum Mey and a few other survivors, but it is up to traveling journalists like me to spread that voice.

Moving away from the past is important, but keeping history from repeating itself holds more significance.

Silence just won’t do.

Are You Joking?

posted by Sumon Ray

Really? Are you joking? Am I in Madam Tussaud’s London museum? I am sorry; I thought I was at the erstwhile killing fields. This is the site where millions of people lost their lives to the heinous crimes of the Khmer Rouge, right? Then, why am I seeing two tourists posing in pictures as if they were at Angkor Wat or the Magic Kingdom?

Question after question was coming to my mind.  What I was looking at was a German tourist taking a picture in front of the skulls of victims that lost their lives in the killing fields. With all the tourist attractions in Cambodia, the killing fields are definitely not the location to have a Kodak moment.

I kept on rewinding what I just saw in my head because I was astonished at what had happened in front of my eyes. Was it just environment of the killing fields? Does it make people do outrageous things? I mean there couldn’t be a plausible reason for taking happy pictures in an environment that automatically brings about despair and tears to one’s eyes.

You didn’t have to be Cambodian or a relative of a person who endured the treachery of the Khmer Rouge to feel the intensity of the whole environment of the killing fields. I cried at the fact that I was standing on the same ground that many innocent people lost their lives. I was easily roaming around the killing fields now, but if this were only a couple of years ago I would probably be running for my life.

The German tourist held up his hand making two peace signs and smiled for his picture that he would possibly put up on a social networking site. That image of him smiling represented such ignorance and made me run away from the situation. My face became drenched in moisture and the mixture of sweat and tears caused a flood on my face. Why was I drowning? I was drowning in tears because I cared. I wondered if the German tourist even cared about what happened only a couple of years ago here in the killing fields.

Even if he did not care, he should have common sense not to take pictures in front of the skulls of dead people. It is similar to posing for a picture with a smile on your face in front of an open casket with one of your dead relatives in it. Now that is messed up.

This whole situation made me think of tourist etiquette. You can’t take pictures with everything. I myself can be a camera freak sometimes, but I decided in advance that I would not take pictures of me posing in the killing fields. I did not want to make the killing fields into an amusement park. The killing field is a space of remembering the dead and a testament to realizing the mistakes of the past. We should take what happened in the killing fields and make sure that it is not repeated again. We shouldn’t photo shop the pictures we take there or take Kodak moment pictures of ourselves there. If you do decide to take pictures, do it with utmost reason to bring a voice to the many voiceless victims of this heinous tragedy.

As I left the killing fields, I noticed the mixture of tears and sweat from my face fall to the ground. I let it fall. They fell in the same way that the tears and sweat fell from the innocent lives of the Khmer Rouge victims.

On the Road to Phnom Penh

posted by Kaitlyn Weber

Out of the blurs of everyday life events there arise moments of absolute clarity. Time stops, senses heighten and everything changes.  In moments of death absolute clarity is born.

In a country devoid of any enforced traffic laws, bikes, buses, cars, and motorbikes exist together on the roads in a form of organized chaos. There are no lines in the center to indicate safe times to pass slower moving vehicles. Driving decisions are based on instinct and opportunity, neither of which ensures safe passage. With no one around to maintain rules of driving, this is how it is done. Millions of people safely arrive at their destinations each day they embark on a journey. On a dusty, bumpy road lined with cows and rice fields, I witnessed a journey cut cruelly short in the blink of an eye.

The timing was perfect. Had I averted my eyes from the window for a second, I would have missed it completely. As fate would have it, my eyes remained fixed on the outside world.

Our bus rolled to a halt, the result of some sort of delay in the road ahead. The vehicle behind us, perhaps lacking patience in traffic jams, pulled into the other lane, a common Cambodian driving technique. Speeding down the road from the opposite direction was a motorbike laden with passengers.

The impact was sudden. The screaming crunch of contorted metal, the knock of accident debris on the sides of the bus, and the gasps of horror from my fellow passengers began and ended in a matter of seconds. I saw everything. I knew that no human body could withstand the force of that brief but powerful collision.

I wanted to see the bodies. Every grain of common sense told me not to look back, to shield my eyes from the outcome of the crash. Yet something else inside told me to look, it is the same sick curiosity hoards of highway travelers are struck with every time they pass a major accident. I began to rise from my seat. I needed to know the men were not lying motionless in the street. I needed to know they had picked up the shattered pieces of their bike and road off towards home. I needed an option besides death. The moment I started to stand I felt the pressure of a million arms forcing me back down.

“Don’t look back. Please, don’t look back.”

I sat down. Feeling slowly began to return to my body and I realized the impenetrable force preventing my rise was the gentle hand of Narla. In a moment when my entire world was on the verge of collapse he pulled me back from the edge. His words shielded me from a site that had the potential to permanently destroy me.

The bus rolled on, our lives continued. I sat void of emotions, my eyes staring out the window that had already betrayed me once. I did not want to talk or laugh or cry. I remained in a motionless state of mindless bliss. No thoughts of what I had seen had yet penetrated my conscious mind.

It was an indeterminable amount of time later when a dog crossed our path. The bus began to slow and the dog safely crossed before impact. I lost all control. Every emotion my body had refused to let out consumed me. I let myself speak the words that could not be true. I had seen death. They were not bodies lying motionless in the street, they were people.

Leaving Phnom Penh our bus rattled down the same rough road. Without realizing my decision until we were already in motion, I had chosen the same window seat I had previously occupied. I soon heard whispers surrounding me. We were approaching the site of the accident.

I found my eyes frantically scanning every inch of the scene against the screaming protests of my mind. I am not sure what I hoped to see. Perhaps I longed for a sense of closure or a better understanding of the event. Perhaps the same sick curiosity was again taking hold. Above all I prayed for a sign that nothing had actually happened on this strip of road. I saw nothing. The road was a road, like every other I had ventured over. The lack of evidence could have reassured me that it had in fact all been a dream, but the sickening memory of the event told me otherwise.

Every detail of the accident is forever engrained in my senses. Whenever I find myself in a time of momentary peace the sound of crushing metal fills my head. With eyes tightly shut the entire scene replays in gruesome mental images. The random fleeting thoughts of the event cause my body to tense up and my heart to race. I want to forget, but I never will.

Upon relaying my story to the few I could bear to tell, I received very similar words of condolence. Everything happens for a reason. I wonder though, can reason ever arise in death? Even if there is a cosmic timeline for each person’s life and death, there can never be understanding for those left behind.  A split second has the ability to change and end lives forever. Maybe it was just time for the passengers of that motorbike, but I refuse to believe that their deaths occurred out of reason.

Out of this inexplicable event I have forced my mind to momentarily set aside the images that plague my thoughts in an attempt to find a shred of understanding. Death is real. It is instant and unfair. Life is real too, and it is in this thought that I am able to find an ounce of comfort in the aftermath of the accident. I will never forget the souls that were lost on the road that fateful day, but I will cherish every instant of life, knowing it is never guaranteed

Brutal Hands and Corrupt Minds

posted by Sarah Lundgren

When you Google “Cambodia,” the first results are about the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal dictatorship under Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. You can read histories and interviews, but you still won’t be able to truly feel the words. You can look at photographs and paintings, but you still won’t be able to understand just what those people saw. It’s like picking up the Diary of Anne Frank; you know what happened in the Holocaust, you’ve felt sympathy and compassion, but it’s not the same.

Even if you come here and see for yourself, walk through the lives of those lost to brutal hands and corrupt minds, I’m not sure you’ll ever be able to fully comprehend what it means to be a Cambodian, living in that time or the legacy after. But it’s for damn sure you’ll never forget the images.

An innocent child, with wide eyes full of incomprehension stares at me from behind plexiglass, his little tuft of black hair matted to his forehead. He wears a black shirt that stands out against a stark white background. He might be three, if he lived that long. His photograph stands among hundreds of others on a display, mostly adults, at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in the heart of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Some of their expressions display fear, others confusion, a rare few smile, but this one child stands out. A recognition of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge– there was no difference between a grown man and a small child. All but seven of the almost 20,000 prisoners in Toul Sleng lost their lives. Evidence to this lies throughout the prison, once a school, to recognize the atrocities of the torture that took place within its grounds.

Every room in the three-building complex brings a fresh punch to the chest. The first building houses rooms that still hold the metal bed frames prisoners slept on, some with the actual torture devices used still in tact—shackles, buckets, shovels. And on the entire first floor, a fuzzy, faded, black-and-white photograph of the mangled body that lay in the room, tortured, starved, sometimes missing a head, always a pool of blood underneath, hangs on the wall. I can’t bring myself to go to the second floor, but it’s still so surreal.

The second building is incased in faded barbwire. Some of the rooms are cell blocks separated by short brick walls, the size of an outhouse without the amenities. I can barely move standing in one. Imagining prisoners cradling themselves in the fetal position, filth all around them, I cringe. Our guide, one of the seven survivors, recalls his tale of being in them. But that still doesn’t make it real for me. I’m beginning to worry I can’t feel.

I step into the first room with boards of photograph after photograph. The leaders of the prison kept the place well-documented, almost as if they reveled in their destruction. Everywhere I turn, there is a face staring at me. A face who’s skull I might have seen in the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields we’d visited earlier that day. A face without hope. Still can’t completely grasp it, just like everything else about this strange place.

Room after room, that punch to the chest from the first building is accompanied by a stinging of the eyes. Men, women, children, starved, sometimes with swollen faces and bandages, stare at me. Sometimes they don’t stare back– their glazed eyes tell me they are just people that had died of starvation, a board across their chest with Khmer writing to mark who they were. It hurts, but I still can only gawk with my mouth open and feel sorry for these people.

It doesn’t feel right to cry all out; these aren’t my family or countrymen to grieve over. I live a privileged live back in the United States, far away from here, I’ve never had this experience and probably never will. Feeling sympathy for these people isn’t enough, but that’s all I can muster at the moment. I’m not even sure if these
are people who’s story I should be telling or photographing. Some want to move on here, others never want to forget.

But then I get to that little boy. Professor Kavoori pulls me aside and says, “Sarah, I think you need to take this picture.” He takes me back into the room I’d just left, up to one board, and shows me the child. We’re both so struck at the face of an innocent who could probably barely talk, yet is staring back at us amongst a board of adult faces. Somehow he’d gotten mixed in with them, most of the children’s pictures were separated in another section, and there were 10 of them at most.

No words come to mind. My head just swims with images of Khmer Rouge soldiers, taking children like this boy by the ankles and swinging them against the “Killing Tree” in Cheoung Ek. I’d seen the tree, but hadn’t been able to put a face to it until I saw this child. I can’t even wrap my mind around that brutality. I take a ragged breath and slowly pace alongside my professor back to the next room, where all the barriers are broken.

On another board of blank faces behind plexiglass, it stands out, much more so than even that little boy. There is no face to look at. No eyes stare back at me. Just a head. A close-up of a head, laying on the floor, still attached to its body. It’s as if someone has scooped all of the head out, like a melon, from the forehead to the chin, and just left the outer casing. Just a pool of blood on the floor and a shell of a human.

I lean against the barred window and bawl. That little boy being banged against a tree comes to life. I can see teenagers being hung on the gallows outside the window. I know those bodies being tossed indifferently into the mass graves at Cheoung Ek. I can hear the moans of prisoners, both in Toul Sleng and at the killing fields. It’s real. And unfathomable. And I can’t stop crying.

But something I can’t stop even more is this rising craving for justice. I stumble through the rest of the rooms, learning about the top leaders behind the Khmer Rouge, some in charge of Toul Sleng itself, and I share in the feelings of our guide. He wants those who did this to pay, he wants to see them suffer as he watched others suffer under them. And he wants his story to be told. As do I.

The idea of death — and the sight of it — are common here. Across from the prison, there’s a sign that reads, “After visiting Toul Sleng, come buy handmade silks!” Even on our ride to Phnom Penh, we saw a horrific accident in the middle of nowhere; nothing could be done about it really. Hospitals are too far away and police are few. It’s pervaded its way into the culture; our translator, a Cambodian himself, told the guide’s story with almost an air of pride in the fact it was the history of Cambodia he was telling.  One of our hosts said its something they see all the time, accidents in the streets, stories about people killing each other over petty things in the newspaper, and he’s become desensitized somewhat.

But I’m constantly reminded– these are atrocities of our parent’s time, of our time. Duch, the leader of Toul Sleng, was sentenced less than a year ago. This isn’t like the Holocaust where we can just read about it and think, “Oh, that was in World War II.” Or where places have been beautified in memorial; death is on display here. Skulls, bones, clothes, photographs. Unspeakable brutality is what you see– in the pictures of mangled bodies, in the rooms with torture devices used just 30 years ago, as you step over bones still in the ground at Cheoung Ek.

It makes you realize how much this country dwells on its past and wants the world to know of what happened here, to two million Cambodians and their kin. It’s the only way they know to build back a country torn apart by paranoia and absolute power.

Through his Eyes: Tuol Sleng Prison

posted by Lindsey Isaf

Tuol Sleng, the S-21 prison, was previously a place of education before its horrendous transformation thirty years ago. In the streets of Phnom Penh, the only evidence that you have arrived at the infamous four-walled structure is the mundane plaque, no bigger than a notebook, at the entrance that reads “Tuol Sleng.” Through the entrance was an intensely eerie familiar layout of a schoolyard, but the realities of its use were drastically different.

The grounds no longer housed swing sets, school desks or chalkboards. Instead, barbed wire drooped over time-withered buildings. Only one small door cutout, used for dragging prisoners to and from interrogation, broke the sheet of daunting twisted wire. Swing sets were turned into gruesome means for interrogation, and the 360-degree survey of the grounds showed no remnants of an innocent schoolyard. The leftovers of the Khmer Rouge prison were individual rooms still possessing rusting torture equipment and rooms lined with detaining cells that strike fear with a simple glance.

The haunting appearance of its entirety and the willingness of Chum Mey, one of three still living survivors of Tuol Sleng, to be our guide was baffling. At first glance, he resembles any older Cambodian man seen on the street. His skin was wrinkled and darkened by age and the beating sun. His hands reminded me of crocodile skin: tough and weathered. His voice did not waiver and his smile epitomized wisdom and understanding. All these characteristics revealed age, but barely betrayed the hardships of being tortured physically and mentally for nearly two and a half months. The truth was hidden. That is until our eyes met.

His eyes resembled something entirely different. Through them I could see his life, his burdens, his highs and lows. The white of his eyes, like a crystal ball, had turned permanently glossy with an indescribable blue tint that invited you to ask questions. I could see the tears that have fallen for years. I could see the pain he felt and witnessed. I could see history.

Although challenging, Chum Mey willingly re-entered Tuol Sleng to teach tourists about the atrocities. Following him towards Building A, where his own and most other interrogations and torturing occurred, I stared in amazement as he reenacted being shackled. Each room of Building A was equipped with various torturing equipment, dulled and rusted from time and use, precariously lying on metal bed frames. Barbaric torture methods of breaking bones, ripping toenails, and electric shocks were all performed in these bare concrete rooms. Discolored tiles under my feet had me shuffling with unease. Simply being present was enough to make any stomach turn with discomfort.

The remaining buildings were used to detain those inmates that were not being tortured for false accusations of CIA or KGB affiliations, or other forms of disloyalty. With amazing ease, Chum walked into Building B and straight to cell 022, where he lived for 72 days. Several identical cells lined each wall. The dried mortar dripped over sandwiched bricks and the insufficient sunlight seeped only through the aged and cracked shudders. The spine-chillingly crude cells seemed to capture a fear that still lingered. The saddening fates of those prisoners were made all too real as Chum slowly lowered his eighty year old body into the shackled position he sat in for hours at a time, decades before.

After taking us through his life and experience while in Tuol Sleng, he posed for a picture in the courtyard. His last words pleaded for each of us to tell his story. To leave the story untold would not be an option. With Chum May’s request and a personal promise, I left Tuol Sleng with a pledge to share what my eyes saw and what the portals of his eyes revealed to me.

On Survivors and Struggles

posted by Maura Friedman

In his eighties, Chum Mey’s eyes are the milky hazel of a man who has seen many things in many years. A small man with a powerful presence, his eyes emanate a silent strength and a dignity that might have been lost in other eyes that witnessed the same atrocities he did.

Our group seized the rare opportunity to put a face to one story about the Khmer Rouge when we were given a tour of Tuol Sleng by Chum Mey, one of the 12 people who survived the prison out of the more than 12,000 who saw the inside of its halls. The building housed a high school before the Khmer Rouge transformed the structure into their central interrogation and torture site.

A mechanic, Mey fled Phnom Penh with his wife and four children (none of whom survived the war) when the Khmer Rouge army invaded. With no place to go, they returned to the city when the Khmer Rouge appealed to Cambodians to return to work for them, Mey as a boat mechanic and his wife as a garment worker. After a few months, Mey was told he had been transferred to a different factory in Vietnam along with three other workers. The truck actually dropped the four off at Tuol Sleng Prison.

At Tuol Sleng, classrooms that once promised bright futures were disfigured with brick and wood and chains to construct tiny, individual cells that held captives in isolation. Walking down each hall, I felt the unease of those who were held there as a simultaneously numbing and anxious sadness began to overwhelm me. My eyes widened in the surreal silence of each cell as I took in pools and spatters of blood, sickened, but realizing I was only witness to the aftershocks of the terror. Mey showed us his cell: room 022 on the ground floor of building C.

Although the Khmer Rouge originally targeted anyone who they saw as a threat to their regime and vision of Cambodia as a communist, agrarian utopia (former government officials, religious leaders, intellectuals), deeply institutionalized paranoia soon reached a boiling point as farmers, children, and even Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials were accused of betraying the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. The large, open classrooms on the ground level of Tuol Sleng were designed to elicit confessions.

Mey was tortured in one of these rooms, completely barren save for a metal bed in the middle and scattered instruments of torture propped to the side. Mey demonstrated the way he and other prisoners were chained to the bed using the original crude, hand wrought iron shackles that still lay in the room. The image was disconcerting. Like many others, Mey was beaten with bamboo sticks until his bones broke. Some of his nails were removed and salt water poured over his open wounds. Mey still has hearing and eyesight loss the side of his head where interrogators electrocuted him until he lay unconscious on multiple occasions.

All throughout his torture, the obsessed Khmer Rouge continued to insist that Mey was either a CIA or KGB spy. They eventually relented when, after days of torture, Mey falsely confessed he had sabotaged factory work in Phenom Pen by spilling acid on fabric and breaking sewing needles.

Like the prison cells, these torture rooms remain unchanged from their darkest days, although the unfortunate corpses that the Vietnamese found when they liberated the prison, draped over each bed like mangled dancers, are now gone, buried in individual mausoleums in the school yard and immortalized in enlarged photos on the wall of each room. Within those torture rooms, each stone seemed steeped in despair, as if every perforated surface absorbed the screams of those terrorized within. My stomach turned as I tiptoed from room to room, careful not to disturb the restless souls I could feel within each room.

We know as much as we do about Tuol Sleng today because of the detailed documentation the Khmer Rouge made of every prisoner, every monstrous act of torture, every false confession and every contorted corpse. These records, however atrocious, ended up saving Mey’s life. As a mechanic, he was able to fix the typewriters that sat in the torture rooms to record confessions, making himself both valuable and inexplicably tied to the actions in the rooms.

After 72 days, Mey escaped during the confusion that ensued when Khmer Rouge officials tried to take some prisoners to fight on the front line of the border just a few days before Vietnamese liberation.

Despite living as a free man for the past few decades, a sense of justice still eludes Mey. Only one high ranking Khmer Rouge official has been sentenced to date, and his prison time is a mere thirty-five years. He likened the emotions of Khmer Rouge officials on trial to crocodile tears. Mey was visibly angry when he compared the pre-trial holding conditions of these officials, many on house arrest, all with doctors and fair treatment, to his own brutal captivity, saying the juxtaposition was unfair. In testifying at these trials and giving tours and talks about his experiences to groups, Mey relives the horrors of his past and says he can only sleep four hours a night.

“I live in the sad. I live in the scary,” he says. But he doesn’t want the next generation to blame him for surviving and not telling his story. So he continues.

Transitioning from Life to Death

posted by Kristy Densmore

I walked into a single wooden cellblock- Tuol Sleng Prison, Building C.

For a couple of minutes I stood in the center of the cell, facing the same direction I entered. I was nervous to turn around and face the fact I was trapped inside a cell. The window was barely cracked behind the bars, and it wouldn’t budge when I tried to push it open more. Darkness- past, present, and future.

 The brown wooden walls were worn. The planks, arranged vertically, towered above my head and stopped just above the window. The cell, about 6′ by 2′, was uncomfortably cramped for a human being’s living space.

Turning around, I gazed out of the cell into the hall. The cell door, constructed of vertical wood with a rectangular peephole in the top center, hung from rusty hinges. I grabbed hold of the door and pulled it closed, trapping myself within the cell. The creaking of the door sent chills through my body.

Two small chains were hooked to the floor to the left of the door. The length was short; it would have been impossible for a prisoner to stand up or move around if he or she were chained.

I imagined myself being trapped in the cell for long periods of time, not knowing if I would survive the day. Looking down at the ground, I counted the 30 tiles within the cell, half orange and half white (though faded and dirty). If I had been a prisoner, I would have counted those tiles repeatedly. I would have counted the wooden planks. I would have counted everything in attempt to maintain focus and sanity.

It was unnerving to think about the succession of people who had occupied the space where I stood. School children, then prisoners, and then me (a representative for a long line of tourists and journalists). After evacuating the city of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rogue converted a school (symbolic of life and education) into a place of death and imprisonment. I tried to picture one of my previous schools in the United States as a genocidal prison, but it was surreal and impossible to fathom.

Barbed wire fencing covered the front of Building C. I read a sign earlier that read, “the braid of barbed wires prevents the desperate victims from committing suicide.” Many of the prisoners had probably accepted death as their fate. After seeing the torture rooms and cell blocks, I understood the appeal of taking one’s own life instead of dying by the hands of the Khmer Rogue.

Looking through the barbed wire on the breezeway of the second floor, I saw two small girls playing in the courtyard of the prison. Disgust overwhelmed me as I thought about the school and education that had been taken from so many children. More so, I was disgusted by how many children the Khmer Rogue had executed. I wondered if any of the children imprisoned at Tuol Sleng had also gone to school there. An uneasy feeling rose in my stomach as I questioned whether the two girls in the courtyard were playing on bars that had been used as a killing device.

As I walked to the prison’s exit, I realized it didn’t matter if I was closed into a cell, standing on a breezeway, or observing from the center courtyards- everything felt uneasy and eerie. An estimated 17,000 prisoners went through the prison with only 12 survivors- 1 survivor for every 1,417 prisoners.

I felt angry when I left the prison. I couldn’t understand why the Khmer Rogue had killed so many of their people. Looking at the bigger picture, I was angry with mankind in general. The Khmer Rogue conflict isn’t the only genocide that has occurred in the world. It’s a global atrocity on repeat.

A Walk Through the Killing Field

posted by Alicia Harper

On a sunny June morning at Choeung Ek one is likely to hear birds chirping cheerful songs and to see purple flowers blooming among the perfectly manicured grass and voluptuous trees that sway in the soft breeze. If you didn’t know your purpose for being here you may think you were visiting a charming Phnom Penh park to escape from honking tuk-tuks and swerving motorbikes for a few quiet hours. Even the towering stupa containing the skulls and bones of victims that were murdered by the Khmer Rouge here seems perfectly placed in the middle of its serene soundings. It is not until you enter the Killing Fields that you begin to sense unrest, the undeniable feeling that something horrible had transpired in the very spot you are standing on. A cold sensation rushes up from your toes when you look down, realizing you are standing among pieces of clothing and skeletons that once belonged to the people that inhabited this city.

The awkward balance between horror and beauty at Choeung Ek is hard to make sense of. Shallow ditches were, only thirty years ago, mass graves for 8,895 innocent people. Now the graves appear as soft rolling hills where roosters search for food followed closely by their young chicks. As we passed through the field we reached two towering trees, both full of life but were used to aid the Khmer rouge in cutting so many short. The Magic Tree stands divine and mighty with a web of roots at its base. Billowing branches sprout thick leaves to shield onlookers from the cruel summer heat. It is accompanied by a sign that says, “This tree was used as a tool to hang a loud speaker which made sounds louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” At this moment, the dread that began in your toes reaches your fingertips and the eerie feeling of being among the dead makes a home in your thoughts.

Next, you reach the Killing Tree, with its harshly bent and jagged trunk, less visually pleasing than the first. The plaque beside it reads, “Against which executioners beat children,” and scraps of old clothing scatter around its base. I stepped close to the tree, searching for remnants of teeth or blood, straining my eyes to catch a glimpse of any sign of human life lost against the aging bark. After a few moments, I realized that I would not find the gory symbols I was looking for, and came to terms with the reality that any blood washed away a long time ago with the rain. Time can carry away many things, but has not succeeded in running off the souls that were brought to the field against their will, now eternally forced to float around the site where they were murdered.

I walked the majority of the property alone to collect my thoughts in private. A tidy gazebo overlooking the eroded shallow lake provided a refuge from the sun’s heat. Beyond the shallow water sits a patch of ominous trees and brush. It is here that 43 communal graves have been untouched and unexplored by the Cambodian Government out of respect for the dead. As I surveyed the property where the horror of genocide took place just 30 years ago, the question of “Why?” consumed my thoughts. My only resolution to this question is that the feeling of power will result in the transformation of normal people into monsters, able to kill their neighbor for no apparent reason other than to feel alive.

Exiting the site, past the songbirds, budding flowers and towering trees I now saw Choeung Ek for what it really is: the closest resting place that the souls who died under the Khmer Rouge will ever reach. This is the most tragic thought of all.