The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)

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Ever since seeing the movie with the same name I had wanted to visit the Killing Fields, to pay my respects to the people that lost their lives there, and to learn about this dark period within the living memory of Cambodian history. The long drive through the countryside to Phnom Penh was a stark contrast to the place I was about to visit. On both sides of the road there was an endless expanse of the brightest green grass, combined with the most intense blue sky I have ever witnessed, on the horizon. Whiter than white fluffy balls of cotton floated in the sky. It was like I was looking at a photographic image and the saturation had been turned up, full. The countryside of Cambodia, combined with the friendliness of its people, is what makes this place so special. It is hard to believe that people who were faced with such an incredible view of beauty every day could find it in their hearts to be so cruel to people when all I felt, looking out at this landscape, was an unequivocal wave of love.

As we approached the Killing Fields our guide explained to us how his family had been affected and how many people he had lost during the Pol Pot regime, that’s when the reality started to hit home. This wasn’t just a tourist attraction, this was a place where unimaginable horror had occurred and innocent people, including women and children, had been brutally murdered. Seeing the skulls of the victims was an eerie experience; however there was an unexpected feeling of peace there, too. I made an offering of incense and flowers to the lost souls and walked around gently, eyes filled with tears as I saw bones and teeth in the ground and clothes of victims so small that they could only fit a baby. The stories of how the guards smashed baby’s heads against the tree trunks to kill them to save on ammunition was just too much to bear.

After the Killing Fields we made our way to the S-21 prison and walked around the cells hearing the stories of how the prisoners were treated. Unexpectedly, as we were leaving the site, we were approached by one of the very few survivors from this prison. His name is Chum Mey and, through a translator, he told us how he was treated by the guards. How they twisted off his toe nails with pliers and how he was made to lick his own urine from the floor if the very small bucket the prisoners were given as a toilet overflowed. It was awful to hear how this smiling old man was treated, how anyone could be so cruel to him. But it was also very uncomfortable to see him have to retell these unimaginable horrific stories over and over again to tourists as he stood taking photos and trying to sell his book. It seemed that he had become a tourist attraction when, in my opinion, this man should be able to live in peace for the rest of his life instead of having to relive those memories over and over again. And still it seems that our species hasn’t learnt from the horrors such as those that occurred during the Pol Pot regime, there is still no peace in the world. I only hope that one day there are no stories, like Chum Mey’s, to tell.

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