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.


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