(WRITER'S NOTE: This series of blog posts is about a trip I took to Cambodia to report on a story for the San Angelo Standard-Times that took place between Sept. 27 - Oct. 17, 2011.)
Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011: It was a tough way to start the day... for all of us. For Toro and his family, it was a reminder of the atrocities that his country went through from 1975 to 1979, and for me a chance to reflect on the good fortune of being born in the United States. We hired a tuk-tuk for the day with a full schedule of activities. The first stop: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Cambodian equivalent of the holocaust museum in Washington D.C. The only difference, this is the actual location of countless interrogations and murders. Like I said, a tough way to start the day.
First, a little history. What was once a high school before the hostile take-over of Phnom Penh in 1975 by Khmer Rouge forces, was turned into Security Prison 21, or S-21, a den of horrors complete with torture sessions, starvation and mass genocide. More than 10,000 people were killed or shipped off to work the fields in the countryside as slaves. Most Cambodians did not return from what are now known as the "killing fields". Often workers were told to start digging trenches and when their backs were turned they were shot, their bodies falling into the very same ditch they were working in. It was a systematic killing of a people with a long and storied past.
Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the front gate of the complex. A tall stone fence topped with razor wire circled the facility. It's an eerie place right as you first walk through the front gates. The sound of the traffic of Phnom Penh, a city of almost 2 million people, seems to almost disappear, as if sucked into a vacuum, leaving you with just your thoughts and the soft echo of your shoes padding the pavement. I wanted to make sure and document Toro's reaction to the place. This was the first time he has seen the atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime with his own eyes.
The first building we came to consisted of large, open rooms with a single metal bed frame in the center of the room. Sitting on the bed frame were various instruments used during torture sessions held at the prison: iron rods and shackles, empty gasoline cans and chains. Hanging on the wall of each room was a single poster-sized photograph of a murdered torture victim. Whether these photos were taken by prison staff or by the liberators in 1979, I'm unsure, but I guess it doesn't matter. The torture sessions were a grotesque affair. Victims were subjected to beatings, asphyxiation, dismemberment, burning, anything to get them to say what their captors wanted them to say. Many, if not most, of the prisoners were highly educated citizens of Cambodia. Pol Pot and his gang of thugs rounded up doctors, lawyers, school teachers, artists, anyone with an education and systematically murdered everyone. If you were not being held in a security prison you worked in the fields.
The next building across the courtyard, past the gallows and the drowning cisterns, was probably one of the most difficult areas to get through. Prison officials kept incredibly detailed notes on everyone imprisoned at S-21 which included names, dates, places of origin and of course photographs of each man, woman and child. Upon entering this building we were immediately met by a thousand pairs of eyes staring back at us. Lining the walls and pinned to cork boards were thousands of prison mugshots taken by security personnel of the people who were held captive in the complex. It was a haunting experience walking along the rows of photographs knowing that almost all of these people were murdered. After spending most of the morning walking around the complex and speaking with one of the two remaining survivors of S-21, we decided to break for lunch.
Our tuk-tuk driver took us to Wat Phnom, a temple constructed on a hill in the middle of the city and is the center of activity during the celebration of the Khmer New Year. There, we ate sandwiches from a nearby vendor and stocked up on water. I was sweating like a beast in the humid climate. We took a quick tour of the temple and had our fortunes read by a man inside. I was told that my fortune was similar to Moses' from the Bible. Odd, considering we were in a Buddhist temple. But, I was told that I would go through great struggles, but in the end have all the power. If I'm remembering correctly, Moses never made it to the land promised by God, he died in the wilderness somewhere. Perhaps I'm losing something in the translation.
It seems like we've been on the go ever since we landed at the airport in Siem Reap with little time set aside for rest. We all looked at each other and decided that it would be best to head back to the house for a nap before dinner. I was still trying to turn my brain off from everything I had seen and done earlier in the day as I put my head down on the pillow, but I just couldn't get the image of all those eyes staring at me from behind the glass at the genocide museum. I laid there for hours listening to the sound of the city outside the open windows of the room. An afternoon storm started to brew with the wind increasing from a casual breeze to a sustained gust. The smell of the city below was replaced with the scent of raindrops and the jasmine garland hanging on the dresser that Sokny gave me the day before. Eventually the smell of steamed rice and fried shrimp from the kitchen made its way to the room. I got up without having slept at all. My back was sore from sleeping on hard surfaces and my feet hurt from walking all day, but its all been worth it. And its only the fourth day.