Cambodia is the kind of place that inspires extreme feelings. Awe and anger, sadness and hopefulness and fear- it’s kind of a rollercoaster ride. But just like the scariest coasters at the theme park, it’s exhilarating and so worth it.
To be honest, this post has been hard for me to write. I had a difficult time sorting out my feelings about our first Saturday in Phnom Penh. My dad and sister were still with us, and we decided to visit two sites associated with the Khmer Rouge regime: the former prison S-21 and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.
When I was in Berlin on a study-tour, a few of my classmates and I used one of our only two “free days” to take a train way out to the suburbs to visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp. It made for a depressing day of sightseeing. But we felt that it was our duty somehow, as a human being, to try to understand what happened during the Holocaust. Just visiting a site isn’t enough, but it helps put facts into context. The concentration camp that we happened to visit was one of the older ones, opened in 1936, and was the destination for many political dissenters, homosexuals, and other “undesirables” as well as Jews. After the war, it ended up in the Eastern zone, and it was used by the Soviets in much the same way it had been used by the Nazis. Of course I know what happened during the Holocaust, but actually visiting the place helped me understand the role of the camps, particularly Sachsenhausen, before and during the war. I also didn’t know that any camps had been used by the Soviets. Things are always more complicated than they appear.
This is especially true when it comes to the Khmer Rouge regime. They officially ruled Cambodia from 1975-79, but actually controlled parts of the provinces both before and after that time period. S-21 and Choeung Ek are the primary memorial sites in the country, but many (though not all) of the people who were imprisoned and later executed were actually purged members of the Khmer Rouge party (the upper echelons were growing paranoid.) It seemed weird to me that the two most famous victims’ memorial sites in the country would actually be sites where a lot of Khmer Rouge died. I am not saying that they deserved what they got- not at all, and especially not their wives and children. But knowing this fact made me wonder: of those who were imprisoned, how many actually had clear consciences? How many prisoners had previously been the jailers? The Khmer Rouge accused people of ridiculous crimes, especially related to espionage, and it’s generally accepted that most were innocent-of those crimes. But who was truly innocent?
Now that the trials of upper-level leaders have begun, it’s easy to place all the blame on a handful of people. But half a dozen people were not responsible for the deaths of two million people. Others are guilty; yet not all- Khmer Rouge member does not equal mass murderer. Many were young, some were children, and did not know what they were joining. It’s fair to say that before 1975, few had any idea of Pol Pot’s future plans. It’s far more complex than I originally thought. I wonder how far the trials are going to go.
Despite these qualms, I still wanted to go see these sites. They’re the closest ones to Phnom Penh (S-21 is in the city center) so they are the most logical sites to memorialize to ensure that many people, both foreign and Cambodian, can come visit. And I think it’s important to pay a visit: education is the best way to prevent such events from happening again. While I was there, I tried to think about all of the victims of the Khmer Rouge, not only the ones who passed through S-21 and Choeung Ek.
Bob said the worst part about S-21 is that it used to be a high school, and it still looks like it. Actually, it really looked like a Japanese high school- big, square, concrete, with many floors. It’s hard to accept that the torture that occurred here could’ve happened in a place of learning. It’s disgusting. For me, more than any other emotion, that was the feeling of the day: not sadness, not anger, but total disgust.
Choeung Ek was the final destination for most prisoners of S-21. Like S-21, it’s been preserved much as it was found. Although some pits of bodies have been exhumed, not all of them have, and it’s easy to find human bones or bits of clothing sticking out of the ground. My dad said he felt like the victims were trying to talk to us, and it was eerie. And like S-21, it demands the question “how could this have happened?”and I felt like I had a huge responsibility to tell my friends and family about these places, about what I have seen.
The most unfortunate thing, now, is that both of these places are extremely poorly curated. The fields of Choeung Ek are fairly self-explanatory, so that was okay, but the museum on the grounds was disappointing. S-21 has barely any descriptions at all for its exhibits, and for those that do exist, the translations are full of mistakes. Both places do offer tour guides (for an extra fee, subject to availability) but I felt it was a disservice to the victims’ memory not to do a better job of explaining the horrors that happened there.