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  • Writer's pictureaymexume

A walk through a dark chapter of Cambodia's history

***This post may be triggering for some. It recounts my visit to Tuol Sleng, a secret prison where thousands were tortured and killed, and the Killing Fields. It provides an overview of the genocide.*** Humans are capable of the most atrocious, horrific things. Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, is an example of how cruel humans can be. 

3 years 8 months and 20 days The time it took to wipe out a quarter of the population, at the time. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people (Cambodians and foreigners) were imprisoned, tortured and killed in Tuol Sleng. They haven't all been identified. The number of confirmed survivors: 12. S-21 is located in a former high school. It was one of 200 prisons the Khmer Rouge ran to get rid of their enemies. Out of the 22 members of the Central Committee, high ranking leaders, 18 were executed; most of them in S-21. Some of the cadres—prison guards and torturers—were later tortured and killed on the premises. An estimated 2 million people, a quarter of the Cambodian population at the time, were murdered or left to die by the regime—starvation was the most common cause of death. Aside from prisons, labour camps were part of the well oiled killing machine the regime had developed. The audio guide ($3 USD) is a mine of information, including first hand accounts by survivors of S-21 and other key witnesses. The entrance fee to the museum is $5 USD. I did not see all the rooms. When I got to the individual cells, I had reached my limit. The last room in the museum displays skulls of victims. I wouldn't have been able to stomach it. It was getting a bit too personal. My grandfather, Papa Doudou, spent nearly 7 years in Fort Dimanche—a prison where the Duvaliers sent people to rot and die a very slow death. First, he received a death sentence. Then, a life sentence. Later, he was pardoned. My family can relate to some of the stories I've heard today. A lot of Haitian families can. Seeing the individual cells reminded me of the stories my grandfather used to tell us. He sugar coated it for us, providing additional details as we got older. Keeping most of the horrors to himself. Reading stories about the Duvalier era allowed me to fill in the many blanks his stories had. Granted, none of our leaders ever went to that extent, in terms of number of deaths. But I couldn't help but draw parallels between Pol Pot and some of our leaders. If the scope was different, the intent was similar. 72 hours The time it took to evacuate Phnom Penh's 2 million inhabitants. Like Duvalier Père, Pol Pot used colorism to divide the population. Cambodians with darker skin were thought to be peasants. They were useful to the regime, their labour fed the nation. He allegedly respected that class of citizens because of the value they brought. But peasants suffered just as much from the regime; they too starved to death, were arrested and tortured. Cambodians with lighter skin were deemed to be intellectuals, a class that either had to disappear or be put to work, real work. Similar to the Duvalier regime, they killed entire families, including babies. The rationale was the same: they were preventing acts of revenge. Like the priest turned president, Pol Pot relied on the masses, the forgotten ones, to attain and maintain power. And, at first, he had their support. According to the museum's audio guide, during the Vietnam War, the USA dropped more bombs on Cambodia, mostly the countryside, than they did during World War II—the entire war! Pol Pot's communism offered an alternative. No visit to S-21 is complete without the 30-minute trip outside the city (about 15 km) to the Killing Fields. The story got even more gruesome. Mass graves. Entire families murdered. Headless corpses were found. The audio guide explains the methods in minute detail. The Killing Fields could be compared to Titanyen, but again the scale isn't the same. There's so much to unpack. Zero and half According to a documentary viewed on the tour bus, there are no confirmed reports of Vietnamese who survived the regime and half of the Chinese population living is Cambodia was disseminated. Ethnicity played a big part in Pol Pot's plan. 1998 The year Pol Pot died. Like the 2 Duvaliers, Pol Pot died of natural causes. 

The first half of my day was heavy. But I'll be OK. One of the survivors said it best, I can go back to my regular life and forget. He gets to live with the pain forever. If you'd like to know more about this piece of Cambodian history, you could watch First They Killed My Father on Netflix.

For more photos of the site, go to my albums in Facebook. 

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