After buffet breakfast at the hotel, we set off for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the air conditioned bus. Upon arrival we were confronted by barbed wire and tall buildings surrounding a courtyard.
Tuol Sleng was originally a secondary school, which was converted to Security Prison 21 during the time of Democratic Kampuchea. Many of us were unfamiliar with the tragic history of Cambodia and the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge. The crimes committed within these walls are beyond comprehension. We learnt about the methods of torture used to extract confessions out of suspected enemies of the Khmer Rouge, the fact that out of the estimated 20 000 prisoners there were only 7 adults and 5 children who are known to have survived, and how people died from execution, torture, starvation or disease. We saw the tiny cells the men and women were kept in, the shackles that bound them to the floor, and the hundreds of pictures of people who had been imprisoned. We spoke with a couple of the survivors who had come back to the museum to tell us about their experiences. The tragic stories of suffering told to us by our guide left us stunned and horrified.
After a short break, we headed off for the Killing Fields. The hauntingly beautiful old graveyard disguised its terrible history. This was the place the Khmer Rouge took their blindfolded victims to be executed. Walking through the Killing Fields, guided by an audio guide, it was impossible to grasp the full extent of the tragedy that occurred here. We saw the remains of the pits victims were pushed into before being covered in DDT. The men, women and children were killed with everyday tools such as axes, hammers and hoes. Imagine not even being worth one bullet to the Khmer Rouge. After every heavy rain, more bones and clothes are washed up to be collected by the groundskeepers. Trucks would come with victims every week to be killed at night under fluorescent lights to the sound of revolutionary music which would drown out their screams. In 1978, trucks came every day and the executionists couldn’t keep up, so the victims were housed overnight with no idea of where they were or what was going to happen. We visited the mass graves and saw the clothes of the victims including the small purple shorts of a child. One of the most appalling parts of our visit was the Killing Tree. The heads of babies and small children would be smashed against the tree until they died in front of their mothers who would die next. It was hard to imagine someone could be so cruel. We visited the Supa that towered over the Killing fields, containing over 5000 skulls of those that had died here.
Thinking about the Cambodian Genocide, one is impressed at how Cambodia survived. After so many intellectuals being killed and schools being shut down, this country managed to rebuild itself on its own. Sure it has some way to go, but the nation wide resilience is astonishing. What was also amazing for our group was the forgiveness the country showed to the Khmer Rouge. As a nation, they overcame their anger and grief and recognised that many of the soldiers had no choice in their actions. Despite this, the lack of justice for Cambodia shocked our group; only four leaders went to jail after a lengthy trial in 2014 and Pol Pot himself walked free.
After a rest at the hotel and a delicious dinner followed by some dancing on the waterfront, we met with Lyn and Ruth before we walked through the Red Light District. We had discussed what we were going to see, however nothing could prepare us for the sheer number of girls, some as young as 14, sitting outside “bars”. It saddened and angered us to see our fellow women put in such a position as to be forced into the sex tourism industry. We were sickened by the men, mostly westerners, some Australians who had come here to exploit these girls. The flashy signs lining the street were demeaning and it saddened us to see women so obviously treated as objects. We recognised our ignorance about the industry and the pretences used to hide brothels. After a long, emotional day, we finally took a tuk tuk back to the hotel, played some worship songs and went to sleep.
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