I put my Kindle down and close my eyes, grimacing. It is not the first time this story has overwhelmed me.
I sit there rubbing my eyes, taking a moment to collect my thoughts. I’m only a quarter way through it, yet this book is consuming me. Time for a break, I decide. I look around.
A lady sits a couple of tables away, sipping on an iced coffee while tinkering with her iPad. On the far end of the cafe sit two middle aged men, laughing cheerfully about something, their palms wrapped around mugs of Angkor beer. Beyond them, a small stretch of the Phnom Penh riverfront, and the faint sounds of traffic passing on the wet road before it.
As my mind settles, I pick up the book to continue reading. As difficult and depressing as it is, the story has captivated me, and despite all the death and suffering I am desperate to know how it ends.
The book is Chanrithy Him’s “When Broken Glass Floats”, a gripping memoir of her life growing up under the Khmer Rouge. I am only halfway through it, but it has brought to life a period of history that, until now, I have known very little about. A genocide. One quarter of the population dead. A brutal dictatorship, an entire country forced into slavery, and the mass execution of anyone educated enough to resist. In just 4 short years (1975-79), the Khmer Rouge managed to decimate Cambodia, crippling the country almost beyond repair. I am unsure why I never learned about this in school.
I read and read, until my battery light flashes red and finally dies. I’m relieved in a way; I’ve been sitting here for hours, my eyes hurt, and it’s already dark outside. Enough for one day.
I wake up late the following morning. Breakfast is served at the cafe outside my room, and I continue Chanrithy’s book while waiting for it to be cooked. I manage another 20 or so pages, eat quickly, and then head back to my room to wash up and get ready. Today I am visiting Tuol Sleng, the famous S-21 genocide museum near the centre of Phnom Penh. Here lies an abandoned high school, turned into a interrogation prison where tens of thousands of Cambodians were tortured and marked for death.
After waiting for the rain to settle, I head out and arrive around mid afternoon. The moment I enter the gate, I feel the eerie vibe it is famous for.
Despite the many visitors, the place is silent. It only adds to the creepiness. I walk sheepishly into the first room; a high school classroom turned into a torture chamber. From the doorway I see an iron bed, with a photo on the wall of the torture victim found chained to it. I am not quite sure what to think. I snap a photo, and exit quickly.
Most rooms in the first building appear the same; an iron bed with ankle cuffs, where victims were bound and tortured into confessions. As I wander through each of them, I think back to Chanrithy’s book, to the stories of people being taken and never returning. Even standing here, seeing it with my own eyes, it is difficult to believe the stories of terror are real.
Eventually I make my way to the second building. Here lies the photo room. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, photographing and profiling all 20,000 prisoners before they were tortured into confession. Once “processed”, they were taken away to be executed.
The photos represent many of the country’s most wealthy and educated at the time, mass murdered in an attempt to create a completely uneducated, communist society. The immense waste of life is impossible to comprehend or understand. One can only wonder how different Cambodia would be today if these great minds were still alive.
Among the photos are faces of children, some who look as young as 8 or 9.
I think back to when I was that age, innocently riding my bike and watching cartoons. The contrast is heartbreaking.
I spend a long time in here, maybe an hour. One by one, I study the faces of all the prisoners. Each of their eyes are sad, defeated. Their fear is unmistakable. Most appear to have accepted their fate.
Yet among them, some appear defiant, refusing to be broken. I admire them, and wonder if I’d have been strong enough to do the same.
Of the 20,000 that passed through here only 12 made it out alive; their stories of survival displayed on one of the classroom walls. Before I start reading I observe the 5 or 6 other visitors, staring at the wall and reading silently. Each of them stand frozen, their lips slightly apart, eyes flashing back and forth across the page in disbelief. Soon I find out why. The stories are straight out of a horror film; tales of being electrocuted to unconsciousness, forced to eat their own excrement, fingers being broken and fingernails being ripped off and covered in salt. Prisoners were tortured into confessions of being spies or conspiring against the State, justifying their execution. Yet one confession was not enough. Torture continued until the victim admitted guilt of their entire family, their parents, brothers, sisters and children, justifiying the execution of all of them.
I read each story, wondering to myself what I would’ve done. How strong would I have been? Would I have betrayed my Mum and Dad, my brothers, to end my own suffering? It is mind numbing; too much for me to try and imagine.
That night I continue reading Chanrithy’s book. My visit to Tuol Sleng has added another dimension to her story. She describes her friends and family disappearing, or being taken away to be punished and executed. I wonder if any of them were taken there, and if I had seen their faces on the wall. It is a chilling thought to think that is possible.
Two days later, I finish Chanrithy’s book. I have never read a book so fast in my life. As I flick through the final pages I am left speechless, happy that she survives, but heartbroken at the suffering she and so many had to endure. Immediately I go to her website and email her, thanking her for sharing the story and offering my condolences, as small a gesture as it may seem. It is hard to believe I have been walking along the streets where this evil happened, only 40 years ago.
The next day I visit Choeung Ek, the famous Killing Fields in the south of Phnom Penh. Of the 3 million Cambodians that died during the regime, 20,000 were executed here, brought from Tuol Sleng by the truckload under the cover of darkness. In order to save bullets prisoners were beaten to death with spades and tools, while loud music played in the background to ensure their screams were left unheard. Bodies were left to rot in mass graves, some piled up to 400 high.
Even today, bits of bone and clothing are still seen lying in the dirt.
After an hour or so I come to the infamous killing tree, where I notice many other visitors standing and staring, deep in thought. It is the tree where babies were executed, taken from their mothers and then swung from their legs, their heads smashed against the trunk. The site seems to have a stronger effect on people than most. I stand there with them, and we all stare at it in silence.
It takes me around 3 hours to walk through the fields. It is a sobering place, but for some reason, doesn’t trouble me as much as I’d expected. While the photos in Tuol Sleng showed people in the midst of struggle and torture, the fields themselves seem to give an odd sense of peace. For many Cambodians, this is where the horror and torture ended, and despite how brutal it was I suppose there is an inkling of closure in that. It is comforting to know the place has been preserved with the respect it deserves, and that people continue to come and pay homage to those who were taken.
It’s about a 40 minute drive from the fields back to my hotel. I sit in the back of my tuk tuk, trying to process everything; Charithy’s story, the prison, the fields, the survivor stories. I find it strange this story is never talked about, unlike the Rwandan or Jewish genocides. I’m actually embarrassed that I knew nothing about it until now.
Eventually we pull out to the main road. As we drive along I see two young girls playing in an empty dirt field; one throws a tin can, the other tries to hit it with a piece of broken wood. She misses, and they laugh loudly like kids and race to retrieve it. It all seems so normal, and for some reason that’s odd to me, for a country that was massacred not so long ago.
When we finally arrive at the hotel the afternoon rain has set in. It is pouring down, and I’m reluctant to leave the shelter of my tuk tuk’s waterproof flaps. I ask the driver to join me in the back, and ask him how old he is.
“Me 44,” he answers.
I need about 2 minutes to do the maths in my head.
“You were 5 during Pol Pot’s time?” I ask him.
“Me 7 years old for Pol Pot,” he replies.
I tell myself to show a shred of sensitivity, but I’m too curious. I bombard him with questions.
He answers me the best he can in his broken English, telling me about his memories during the Khmer Rouge rule; eating only rice soup a couple of times a day, eating lizards and crickets, even killing and eating the stray dogs around the villages. I’m reminded of the time I saw fried crickets for sale on the streets of Siem Reap, which now makes a little more sense to me.
My driver’s eyes open wide as he continues his story, retelling tales of his mother and father forced to work long hours in the rice fields, and teenage boys forced to stand out in the sun and mind the cattle. Then he laughs as he recalls the big trucks coming to take away all the rice and beef, leaving all the workers to starve at the end of the harvest.
I ask him about school, and he shakes his head.
“But no work for me too,” he recalls. “When you turn 15, you work. I only 7 years old. I just sit in the house. Run around in the field. Play with other kids.”
I nod in slience. It is difficult to hear him through the pounding of rain on the roof, but I do my best to digest every word.
Finally, I build up the nerve to ask him about Tuol Sleng, if any of his family is in the photos, and if any of his family was executed under the regime.
“No, no, not my family,” he laughs. “But my friend, they see some family there, in the photos.”
“But my uncle is gone,” he continues. “He disappear, we don’t know where. Maybe get bang bang by Pol Pot,” he says, mimicking the shooting of a rifle with his hands.
I’m uneasy at how calmly he talks about it. Part of me wishes he was (a lot) more angry, but he seems to be at peace with it. Luckily his mother, father, and siblings all survived, and maybe that is the reason why.
That night I sit on the riverfront until sunset. It is filled with elderly people out walking, usually in pairs, leisurely strolling along while enjoying the evening air. The street sellers are far more passive than in the neighbouring countries, and a simple shake of the head is enough to turn them away. I watch each person walk past, studying their faces, wondering what their story is and how they survived the genocide. It is frightening to think that Chanrithy’s story is only one of many, and that almost a whole population has a similar tale to tell. Visiting Cambodia has been a sobering reminder that we should never take our freedom for granted.
Finally as the sun sets I see two boys pass by, maybe 10 years old, riding side by side on brand new bicycles. They ride slowly, one of them holding a pack of biscuits in one hand while he steers the bike with the other. They argue with each other intensely, shouting and shaking their heads, probably about something trivial like a video game or a TV show. Until now I’ve found Cambodians to be rather docile and reserved, and this kind of energy is a little out of the ordinary; they are by far the loudest people on the riverfront. Clearly their upbringing has been very different to the generation before them. Hopefully, a sign of new beginnings in Cambodia, and a future much brighter than its past.
Visiting Phnom Penh?
- I would highly recommend reading Chanrithy Him’s “When Broken Glass Floats” before you go. It is difficult to read, but will paint a vivid picture of the Khmer Rouge regime and bring to life the historical sites you will visit. It is superbly written, and is a powerful story of one family’s loyalty and perseverance. It’s around $10 on Kindle. Another similar book that was recommended to me was “First They Killed My Father” by Luong Ung, although I haven’t read it.
- Assuming you are staying in the city or on the riverfront, a tuk-tuk will take you to Tuol Sleng museum and back to your hotel for around $5-$7 all up. He will wait for you outside until you’re ready to leave. I have been to many museums in my life, and this is one of the few (or maybe the only) that I will remember. Entrance is $2.
- Choeung Ek is a bit further out of the city and will cost you around $10 to get there and back. Again, the tuk-tuk driver will wait for you. Entrance is $6. I would definitely do Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek on different days – it is a bit much to digest both at once. Best to do Tuol Sleng first, and Choeung Ek second.
Have you visited Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.