The trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh takes about six hours by bus. During these six hours I was presented with one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Never ending rice fields in vibrant green, interrupted by huge palm trees under a deep blue sky. Once in a while you see a kid playing in the water ponds near the rice fields or a small village disrupts this bucolic landscape. It is an image of peace and calm, making it hard to imagine all the suffering Cambodians endured under the very same sky.
Between 1975 and 1979, when Cambodia was under the Khmer Rouge regime, some 2 million Cambodians were killed or starved to death. In each group of four friends, one disappeared, forever. The cruelty and brutality of this period was unimaginable, and yet to this day little is known about it outside the borders of Cambodia. During this period, the international community was blind to what was happening, and classified as gross exaggerations the accounts of the few that managed to escape. A Swedish embassy was sent to analyze the status of the country and was unable to see through the propaganda. Instead, it came back with reports praising the murderous regime. Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, they were still regarded as the official ruler of Cambodia and maintained their seat in the UN until 1982. It took time and effort from the new elected government to shed some light into the events of those dreadful years.
On our way to Phnom Penh we were mostly ignorant of all this. We knew there had been a dictatorship, people had been tortured and died, but not much more. So it was a punch in the gut when we started piecing the story together.
To help understand these events there are two places one needs to visit: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. The first was a high school used as a security prison and torture center. The latter was one of the many killing fields and mass graves that were created throughout the country at the time.
Tuol Sleng was known at the time as S-21. It was a succession of buildings with stripped-down rooms, furnished only with the tools used for torture and the echoes of those that died there. There was a wired fence all around to prevent suicides. Everything was organized for maximum suffering. The walls are now decorated with the pictures of those who perished. Forty years later, you still have a feeling of helplessness and despair. It is not an easy place to visit and only the stories of those who survived give it a glimpse of hope.
Choeung Ek was initially an orchard, and you can still see many of these trees, masquerading the atrocities committed there. It is a difficult walk around the complex, where we are confronted with some of the darkest pages of Cambodian (human?) history. Some 9.000 bodies are buried here, most of them from Tuol Sleng. Men, women and children were dragged and beaten to death, having as background music Cambodian folklore. Even with the sun bright in the sky, it is a very dark and sad place.
Both places are there to show the world what happened, ensuring that the memory prevails and history is not repeated. Unfortunately our collective past has many of these examples, but let’s hope for a brighter future!