All the news about the Khmer Rouge trials have brought my impression of physical remnants of their sites back to the surface.
Phnom Penh boasts of few attractions. Most people who choose to pass through instead of flying directly to Siem Reap to the Angkor ruins do so because of the Khmer Rouge sites. In my many trips back to PP for business, I constantly get bombarded by tuktuk drivers trying to solicit a more than a fare by being a dedicated driver for a whole day, offering to take me to see the Killing Fields or the Tuol Sleng prison. What a sad reflection it is on your home when the biggest bragging points are remnants of massacre and human cruelty.
The Killing Fields had sunken pits where bodies have been dug out (if you can call it excavated). As I walked, I noticed rags lying about. Indignation bubbled up as I wondered what kind of people would be careless enough to litter such an awful place that remains the resting ground for many victims. It wasn’t until halfway through that it finally occurred to me that those rags were really clothing, from the victims, still lying around.
Tuol Sleng looked like it was abandoned in a rush, then left to rot in the humid climate. In the courtyard, a sign titled “The Security of Regulation” read:
- 1. You must answer accordingly 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 in order to hide your secret or traitor.
- 9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many 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.
The individual units reeked of some stale combination of rotting wood, mold, something akin to human waste. I swear, if you look closely enough, you’d see the faded brown blood stains around. The barb wire around the front of the building snuffed out any perception that this building was ever a school, a very institution that produced the educated people the Khmer Rouge targeted. I could barely keep the bile down as I walked around. The incongruity of crowd of tuktuk drivers, hawkers, vendors of sorts targeting tourists, just outside the compound entrance, waiting to pounce on the visitors as they leave the prison, seems to be lost on the locals.
I have never been to any of the World War II concentration camps in Europe… or any World War II memorial site other than Pearl Harbor, for that matter. I did find the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC to be one of the most haunting and resonating museums I have ever been to. But, this by far remains the most chilling and unnerving sites dubbed as an “attraction.”