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The stifling humidity levels and dark clouds hovering menacingly in the sky threatened to deliver one of Phnom Penh’s famous rain deluges during the wet season. I picked the wrong day to hop in a tuk-tuk and venture outdoors, stuck in traffic for more than 20 minutes. An endless sea of trucks, tuk-tuks, and cars attempted to weave around each other while honking horns, with a solitary uniformed officer trying to maintain control of traffic and enforce road rules. But his whistling and animated hand gestures came to no avail, and he resembled a conductor struggling to keep in time with his orchestra. For a brief moment, I considered hopping out and going to the local market, but I had a date with Cambodia’s violent past and backing out was not an option.
My destination was The Killing Fields, a lasting legacy of the auto-genocide planned and executed by the Khmer Rouge and its psychotic leader Pol Pot. In four years, up to 1.7 million (some estimates put the death toll at 2.5 million) people were executed or starved to death between 1975 and 1979. Officially known as the Cheoung Uk Genocidal Centre, The Killing Fields is a shocking reminder of the Khmer Rouge’s rampage. Back then, the international community was locked out and unable to intervene until the Vietnamese Army invaded in 1979. Nowadays it is a must-see destination for international and domestic visitors, an essential component in understanding Cambodia and its people. It has also been referred to as genocide tourism, a dose of shock therapy and sympathy, without wearing physical scars.
Outside the front gates, the driver said to me “You have fun today.” I smiled and thanked him. He must have taken enough people here and be well drilled. I did not tell him that I had lived in the countryside for a few months. To him, I was another gawking tourist.
My stomach churned once I walked under the entrance gates, a sign of intimidation. A group of men in the distance spotted me, and one man instantly decided that I would be his prey. He had broad shoulders and moved like a predator. I froze, wondering if I had looked at him the wrong way. Was he a plainclothes police officer or a gangster, I asked myself? In Phnom Penh, anything is possible. Making a hasty exit was not an option; I thought I was going to crap my pants. Destiny had cast the dice; life would end the grounds of a mass slaughter. My uneasiness subsided only when the man faced me and shook my hand. There was no smile, however.
“Welcome to the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge killed my parents here. Today I will show you where.” With that sentence, Sroun gestured for me to step where he stood. I was unprepared for his next question, “Why did you come here today?”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. He did not wait for me to answer.
“If you feel any pity, then don’t. If you are not sure why you came here, then please leave because you won’t learn much. My English is not good like yours, but the books you have read about how many people die (sic) in Cambodia cannot tell you about life. That is what I offer you.” For somebody who claimed not to speak English well, he certainly used the power of direct language effectively, much better than me. Pointing into the distance, he said, “You see here, many people come because they watched movie ‘The Killing Fields’. It makes them cry.” He clenched his fist and beat it on his chest. “Not me,” he said. “Bad man not let me go. But maybe one day, I will get out.” The ‘bad man’, he said, was Pol Pot.
Sroun made his living as a guide, and also drove motorcycles at night to make ends meet. His family came from Phnom Penh, making them prime targets for the Khmer Rouge, but avoided giving away too much about his family. “Not in the mood today. Friendships take long time, take little steps first,” he explained. As for speaking about his own time growing up, he said that it had too many bad memories, adding only that the Khmer Rouge robbed him of his adolescence. It seems that too would have to wait. What I had come to learn about living in Cambodia is that there is plenty of time, and schedules are made to be broken. So I would have to be patient. “You don’t need my life story…yet.”
Everywhere we walked were open pits that looked like bomb craters. Prisoners from the nearby Tuol Sleng Prison would be chained together, lined up and beaten with clubs before being shoved and buried inside the graves. More than 120 graves exist across the Killing Fields. Recent rains had resulted in sparse patches of grass growing across the pits. Every time I passed a grave, it spooked me. Every crunching noise sounded like a bone; any dampness on the ground felt like puddles of blood, not rain. My eyes darted everywhere as I moved slowly. Sroun noticed my anxiety. “Are you scared?” he said with a sadistic grin. I nodded. There was no way I could pretend to show any macho tendencies. I focused on the butterflies patrolling the air as if they were on patrol. They too could sense I was out of place. What could I ask Sroun that he would be prepared to talk about? I turned to Sroun and asked him how he felt about being a guide here.
Sroun’s eyes bulged wildly. “Look at what Pol Pot gave us. Bad man (Pol Pot), he say Cambodia will be world’s strongest country thanks to revolution, but he make Cambodian kill Cambodian. Why? Cannot imagine.”
“Did you know of families that were killed?” I asked him.
“Yes. Here, everybody knows someone who lost family or knew somebody killed by the Khmer Rouge,” Sroun answered. He told me told me of one family who was exterminated. The parents, he said, were accused of stealing food and confessed in a self-criticism session, part of the daily brainwashing routine to love Angka. “Khmer Rouge say to us, ‘You don’t need parents, only Angka.’”
“What was your secret in surviving?” I quizzed.
“(To) shut up. Look when they say, speak when they say, breathe when they say,” Sroun said. Learning to be dumb takes more skill than being smart.
When we reached a spot not far from the watchtower which provided power to inflict electric shocks on inmates of Tuol Sleng Prison, Sroun paused for a moment, then squatted on his knees. “This is where I found my parents,” he said. “They were buried with many others.” He cannot recall the year they were killed because he was separated from them. “Too long ago. But in 1980, I volunteer to dig up bodies.”
I asked how they died. “Hit many times with big stick all over body and left to die,” he retorted. Sroun did not know he had dug up his parents’ bones until tests came back confirming the bones were the remains of his mother and father. They were more among more than 20,000 people to meet a similar fate.
I wanted to know what went through his mind at the mind and how he reacted.
“When the Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia, we were not allowed to cry. I never express my feelings, or I would be dead,” Sroun admitted to me. “So I said nothing. But many years later, Kofi Annan (former Secretary-General of the United Nations), asked me, ‘how can Cambodian kill Cambodian?’ That is when I learned how to cry.”
As he said these words, a sense of relief came over me. Maybe I had broken the ice with him, and we could converse. But as we headed to a building which housed the skulls of thousands of victims bludgeoned to death, Sroun’s eye bulged a second time; he had spotted somebody holding a skull with a large crack on top, posing with the peace symbol as his friends took photos. As the skull passed into the hands of a group member, who then planted a kiss on the skull’s cheek, Sroun he exploded in a rage of English and Khmer words. He had clearly been angered by what he saw. The offending group member caught kissing the skull bowed his head in shame and held out the skull for Sroun to collect and return to its rightful spot. His companions had already left and he ran off to join them.
Once Sroun had returned, he returned in a huff and spat on the ground. “Fuckers,” he said. “I hope they got their blood money’s worth.” For all I know, that skull could have belonged to his mother or father.
Now was probably not the right time to ask Sroun about his opinion of Pol Pot, but I took a chance.
“David, I am angry that he got away. I want him to tell me why he killed so many Cambodians. But he escaped. When Saddam Hussein died in Iraq, I cheered because the Iraqi people got to see justice. I looked at Saddam on television and saw the body of Pol Pot. And Saddam’s death made me smile because I imagine Pol Pot hanging. Everyone was hostage to that bad man.” It seemed fitting that the last words I heard from Sroun were part of his trademark phrase that described a leader who must count among the world’s most brutal dictators.
With a promise to share more about his life on a second visit, we shook hands again. I offered Sroun money for donating his time, but he refused to accept the cash, saying that if money could not bring his parents back, he did not want my money. And with that, he returned to his quarters. But my day was not complete. It was time to take the march and absorb the grotesque images spread across the vast lands of an abandoned high school turned into a death factory.
Known as S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a memorial for men, women and children held in inhumane conditions. Meticulous records of more than 16,000 prisoners are kept on premises, along with more than 10,000 identity photos. Classrooms became torture chambers, displaying leg shackles, water board apparatus, and diagrams and models of how confessions were extracted demonstrating how interrogations and tortures were carried out. Outside the building, a sign warning prisoners of the expected behavior is a cruel commemoration of the interrogator’s limitless powers to inflict pain for even the slightest indiscretion. Visitors are warned not to smile, speak loudly, laugh, take photographs or film footage did not stop visitors from following these rules. But anybody spending only a few hours breathing in the horrors of the decaying building would not be water-boarded, given electric shocks or strapped in shackles. The building’s perimeter is still surrounded by razor wire.
I joined the line, shuffling between rooms as the floor made a whooshing sound with each footstep. Any other noise would attract an unwanted gaze. Everybody was in a trance, carefully studying graphic images. I closed my eyes and felt the whips slicing the air hard enough, causing it to bleed. The thought of screams and cries of mercy from inmates freaked me out, as I am sure it did to others as well. Nobody dared try and hurry the line’s progression of the line. This is a building capable of spooking even the hardened individual. But as I neared the boards which showed the identification photos of each prisoner, it became too much for one elderly woman. She fell to her knees and began screaming hysterically, begging to get out. We all froze, ill-equipped to handle such an emergency. Two employees who arrived also watched the woman wail. They too stood motionless, unsure of what to do. Everybody felt sorry for the woman but did not intervene. It took several minutes before she was calm enough to be led away.
To me, it seemed like being a part of a funeral procession. I heard the sobbing of some people in line; they were clearly distressed, if not overwhelmed. I wondered if it was going to affect me too. Two images—a young woman holding a newborn baby, who looked much older than her age would have suggested, and an old man with his brains hanging out of his skull, finally eroded my courage. A sickening sensation came over me and then I collapsed. It took me a few minutes to come around and realize what had happened.
“Wake up! Are you alright?” is the first sentence I remember hearing upon regaining consciousness. With a head that felt like concrete and wobbly legs, I lacked the strength and balance to sit up properly, so I lay on my back and resigned to being the circus freak. Curious on-lookers huddled together, wondering what had just taken place. They were eagerly anticipating my first words. I managed to slur one sentence; “I was sick near The Killing Fields”, hardly a profound statement.
As I made my way back to base later that afternoon, I remember the driver trying to convince me to go shooting AK-47s at an undisclosed location for the cost of one dollar per bullet. But in my woozy state, I said that I had seen enough horrors for the day. Genocide tourism offered an escape clause allowing me to make a hasty exit if I could not handle traumatic visions from Cambodia’s darkest days.