I woke up this morning in the Anise Hotel wishing I had asked for a second blanket. If there’s a trick to balancing the too-cold a/c with the hot humid weather of the Meekong, I haven’t found it. After a quick breakfast at the hotel café (fried rice and orange juice for me), my group boarded a small van and set off for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21. S-21 was once a high school in Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge emptied the city when it was converted it into a detention and interrogation facility. Words like ‘atrocity’ and ‘cruelty’ that I had read about the Khmer genocide now seemed insufficient to describe what went on there. Former classrooms had been converted in cells or torture chambers. Some rooms displayed graphhic photos of the bodies that had been found when the prison was sacked, placed on the bed frames that still remain. Other rooms told the historic narrative; these displayed prison artifacts such as confessions victims had been forced to write, along with prison photos demonstrating how well organized and calculated the genocide was. Other rooms had torture devices while one had nothing more than blood stains that had never been removed.
Soon we were back on the road, this time heading toward Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, a.k.a. the Killing Fields. The fields were a vibrant green except for the small dirt paths that lead visitors among the mass graves, most of which had been partially excavated. These photos speak for themselves.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 Khmer people passed through this and other detention centers to be interrogated. Once forced confessions were recorded they were told they would be taken to work camps, but instead were taken to the killing fields where they were executed one by one, usually by being hit over the head and thrown into a mass grave. A 17 tiered tower in the middle of the Center houses the remains of thousands of victims of the genocide, 10 tiers of nothing but human skulls. It was explained that in Khmer culture the resting place for the dead is significant, so although there is no way to identify the victims, it was important to find a way to enshrine them respectfully in hopes of offering their spirits rest.
I would like to write more about the politics of what happened here, but right now I just have to feel it. I can't believe what human beings are capable of doing to one another.
P.S. Later that night, I ran into the same kid who had sold me the scarf. I asked him about school. He said he goes to school in the morning and sells in the afteroon. That made me feel a little better about buying the scarf.