Last month, I attended the International Center for Journalists annual awards dinner in Washington, where Cambodian documentarian Thet Sambath was honored. His film, “Enemies of the People” chronicles years of interviews he conducted with Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s no. 2 man. It was only after a number of years of filming him before Thet Sambath admitted to Nuon Chea that his own parents were among those killed by the regime. The film is excellent — scary, enlightening, and heartbreaking.
Archived entries for Genocide
My first morning in Phnom Penh, I stopped by the hotel concierge for tips — after all, I came to Asia not knowing I would even end up in Cambodia, so I came with no plans and no guidebook.
“Would you like to do the happiness tour or the sadness tour?” he asked me. The “happiness tour,” he explained, involved shopping. The “sadness tour,” of which he spoke so plainly, was really the Khmer Rouge tour. I admittedly only had a cursory knowledge of the Khmer Rouge years before visiting Cambodia, so I jumped on it.
The first stop on the tour brought me to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the school-turned-prison where Pol Pot and his regime killed held, tortured, and killed everyone from city dwellers to intellectuals to kids.
The simple “museum” seemed more like an untouched relic from its 1975-1979 reign of terror, with implements of torture available to touch and feel:
Photos throughout the museum reminded of us those lost here. Of an estimated 17,000 people who were detained, fewer than a dozen came out alive.
From the prison, we headed out into the countryside, past endless miles of factories where labels like Gap and J. Crew are stiched, to the killing fields at Choeung Ek. One of countless Khmer Rouge killing fields throughout the country, this one-time orchard was beautiful and utterly depressing.
The memorial tower, the only bit of “formality” on what is otherwise acres and acres of seemingly unspoiled greenery. The tower is filled with the skulls of Khmer Rouge victims:
A couple of the many simple, horrifying placards on the site:
With teeth and bits of clothing rising to the ground’s surface after heavy rains, you could feel the recency of the genocide. In that sense, there was no comparing the experience of visiting the Khmer Rouge sites versus visiting Holocaust sites. The two feel very different, perhaps because Cambodia’s darkest years occurred almost during my own lifetime. Also, in every encounter, the people of Phnom Penh were absolutely willing to talk freely and frankly about those years.
A gorgeous site, where unbelievable atrocities occurred:
I’ve been to Germany about 300,000 times but never made it to a concentration camp in all those trips. On a beautiful Saturday morning as I was strolling around Munich, I decided to set out for Dachau, 20 minutes northwest of the city, to change that. It was truly eerie pulling into the thickly wooded area beyond which lays one of the most notorious killing grounds in history. On the walk from the visitors center to the camp itself, I was struck mostly by the complete silence of the place. Bavaria is such a spectacularly beautiful place, so it is haunting to think that of all the atrocities committed against that stunning, seemingly peaceful backdrop. While much of the camp has been destroyed, some fabulous, fascinating, awful exhibits are on display in the buildings that remain intact.
Gate into camp courtyard: Arbeit Macht Frei means “Work makes one free”