Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Killing Fields

On Saturday we took a break from research and interviews and spent the day sight-seeing as a group. Originally we planned to see the National Fine Arts Museum and the Royal Palace in the morning, and then in the afternoon go to Tuol Sleng (S-21) and Choeung Ek, but at breakfast on Saturday we decided to do it the other way around.

Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, is basically known as the Auschwitz of the Khmer Rouge regime. It was a prison where "important" prisoners taken to be tortured and killed. There are only about a dozen known survivors of S-21. Before it was a prison, Tuol Sleng was a high school; the prison cells were constructed in innocent classrooms. Some cells housed only one prisoner, usually the more special and important ones, while lesser important prisoners were grouped together. In true Maoist fashion, many prisoners were required to write "confessionals" in the form of autobiographies, and were tortured until they gave an answer that was wanted. Most were falsely accused of being affiliated with CIA or the KGB; that was the biggest offense. And a lot of the time people confessed this. Really, though, it's so ridiculous, that all these people could be conspiring with the CIA or the KGB, both fierce enemies of the Khmer Rouge, and yet people got away with accusing whomever they wished as being an enemy, and there was nothing anyone could do about it; once you were accused, you were basically dead.

S-21 is chilling. I've never been to a concentration camp before, but I assume that this is what it's like. It is eerie, it is disturbing, it is horrifying, it is every emotion that will twist your stomach and make you want to curl up in a ball and cover your eyes and ears because it doesn't seem like it could have been possible. The walls are dirty, the cells are cramped and dark, and you can just feel the despair surrounding you. Some cells still had chains or the bed or torture instruments in place, I guess so one could get the feel of what it was like; you can't truly know what it's like, though, unless you've experienced it. Still, it was frightening.

On the bottom floor of one of the prison buildings there is a display of photographs of every prisoner who entered S-21. The Khmer Rouge were strict about documenting their victims. All are wearing black, as the Khmer Rouge ordered every person to do so, and all have a number, usually tied on a string around their necks. None are smiling. Some look slightly away from the camera, some look at it with absolute fear and hopelessness in their eyes, and still others hold their heads high and a steady, firm gaze into the lens. There are women as well as men. There are even children. Usually if a prisoner was especially evil according to the Khmer Rouge's principles, their children would be executed as well; there is a Khmer Rouge slogan that goes something like "dig up the grass, dig up the roots". S-21 showed no person mercy. Many prisoners were brought to S-21 but then soon shipped off to the killing fields to be executed. Others, more important prisoners, were tortured until they gave sufficient confessionals, and if they did not die from the torture (usually given by order) they too were brought to the killing fields. S-21 is the epitome of Khmer Rouge cruelty and inhumanity. They used former school exercise equipment as instruments of torture for water-boarding and hanging. There are paintings on the first floor of a prison building painted by one of the S-21 survivors, and they all depict Khmer Rouge atrocities committed both at S-21 and S-21's main killing field site, Choeung Ek. I'm not going to go into detail about what the paintings show; I got enough of a glimpse to remember what they were, but subsequently exited from the room as fast as I could.

There is a sign outside in the courtyard that lists the rules of the camp. They are (translated from Khmer):

1. You must answer in according to my question; Don't turn them away.
2. Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don't be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don't tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don't make pretext about Kampuchea Krom (ethnic group) in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don't follow the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Significantly drained and subdued, after Tuol Sleng we made our way by van to Choeung Ek, the Killing Field of S-21. It lies just on the outskirts of Phnom Penh city; it seems rural, but it is not a far drive. Tuol Sleng was disturbing; Choeung Ek is another kind of horror altogether.

Prisoners were taken by transport to the site, where they were unloaded and taken to spots to be executed. Not all were merely shot; Khmer Rouge cadres used hoes and whatever else tools, because Pol Pot said that "bullets shouldn't be wasted unnecessarily". There are skulls on display at the museum at Choeung Ek that clearly show breaks and cracks in the skulls, clearly from being beaten. The first thing one sees after passing through the entrance gate at Choeung Ek is the large, clean white stupa, standing on small hill. A stupa is a Buddhist memorial. It is about two, three stories high, and has about eight or so horizontal rows just filled with skulls. They are the actual skulls of victims unearthed from their mass graves. Walking up to the stupa, you are required to remove your shoes if you wish to see the memorial up close; this is for respect in the Buddhist religion. You can walk all the way around; it is a mostly glass monument. Incense burns at one corner, and a large wreathe is laid at the front.

I and a few others in my group followed Professor Kosal to walk around the killing fields. They are mass graves that have been dug up, leaving patches of deep earth with grass barely growing over it and thin walking paths in between. We walked among the graves. Some things are marked, like a mass grave that had bones but no skulls, or one that held only women. There is a tree with a sign that says a loudspeaker was hung over it so that when prisoners were being killed, their cries would be amplified from the loudspeaker, and thus scare the other prisoners on their way to execution. Another tree, the most horrible, bears a sign that says "Killing tree on which executioners beat children". It's true, they did do that.

It was very hot at the killing fields. It's always hot in Cambodia, but the quiet of Choeung Ek made me much more aware of the sticky air around me and the suffocating humidity. The fields are so quiet that it is hard, though not impossible, to imagine what they were thirty-five years ago. Grass is growing over the unearthed mass graves and there are plenty of trees, and luckily there stand memorials and signs that alert you to what happened, so that it all can be remembered.

We sat under a Chinese pagoda (Choeung Ek used to be a Chinese burial ground) and rested our feet as well as our minds. I felt so drained, from the heat or the reality around me I'm not sure; it was probably a combination. Perhaps he was moved by all our emotions and the somberness of it all, but Professor Kosal told us for the first time, really, about his family and his origins. We knew he was born just before the Khmer Rouge came in 1975 in Cambodia, but beyond that not much. It was really touching to hear him talk about the earliest part of his life; he and his family really were very lucky. It was still touching to listen to, and I'm glad he told it to us.

My visits to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are not ones that I am going to forget, ever. In a way they made the Khmer Rouge regime more real to me than a survivor's testimony or documentary ever has. Walking through the prison cells, seeing the victims' photographs and the photographs of torture, walking through the killing fields, all of those realities seeped through my skin and made me feel. Professor Kosal half-jokingly made a comment that if it weren't for us being in Cambodia and needing to see these things, he would not want to and would not go to Choeung Ek. But it was necessary for us to see, and I'm glad we did. In a strange, twisted way I was both revolted and fascinated by Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek.

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