When we were in Phnom Penh we visited the infamous Tuol Sleng Khmer Rouge Prison s-21 and the Killing Fields. For those who aren’t familiar with the history, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia mid-April 1975, about two weeks before the Fall of Saigon. They were a brutal communist regime, headed by Pol Pot, who wanted to recreate the country from ‘year zero’. Anyone educated, anyone with foreign connections or from an ethnic minority was viewed as an enemy and killed. They took young boys and girls from poor, rural, uneducated communities and trained them as soldiers, indoctrinating them into believing that people from the cities were evil, corrupt and responsible for the poverty in the country side. Without going into a history lesson, from 1975 they attempted to transform the country into a communist, agricultural society. They did this through mass murder, forced relocation to collective farms and other forms of social engineering. Cadres were encouraged to report their own family members and estimates of total deaths usually state around 2 million, which is more than 1/5th of the population. This means every single person over the age of 32 in Cambodia would have lost a family member or been affected in some way.
S-21 prison used to be a high school but was converted into a torture prison. University professors, diplomats, businessmen, women, children and the elderly were all taken here. They were photographed, tortured into given false confessions and chained in cells. The Killing Fields were the mass graves in the country side that people were taken to afterwards and brutally killed. Now these places are tourist attractions. You go around the prison looking at hundreds of photos of inmates and at the Killing Fields there are rows and rows of skulls. It was only 30 years ago so bits of bones, teeth and clothing still often surface from the ground of mass graves.
The exterior of the prison (photo taken from google images)
Classrooms turned into cells (again, photo taken from google images)
The rules of the security camp.
Now, the reason I’m telling you this is because you get a slightly odd feeling when you visit places like this. Why go on holiday to look at photos and buildings in which other people suffered? Isn’t it just a morbid fascination? I know many people, including some of my friends who I went with, don’t like the idea and would never go again. There’s a quotation from Alan Bennett’s play ‘The History Boys’ in which Hector, a teacher, talks about school trips to concentration camps, he is disgusted at the idea, saying something like “Where do they eat their packed lunches, where do they have their sandwiches?”It seems disrespectful to walk around with your camera, in shorts and t-shirts, in a place where so many people died. It seems wrong to sit their and eat your food in a place were people suffered incomprehensibly. There is no way to do anything without feeling guilty or uneasy.
Nevertheless, I think it’s a good idea. One thing living in a developing country has taught me is that people in the first world moan WAY too much. They moan about the government, the NHS, political correctness and other things that they have the luxury to moan about. Because they don’t need to moan about not having enough food, or a roof over their head or no access to healthcare. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; once you have the first few layers then you can moan about having to pay £7 for your prescriptions or your favourite pair of jeans being sold out. I had a friend at uni (my uni friends will know who this is) who was so negative and would literally moan about everything; her life was always so awful and everything was always so unfair, the world was ending if her internet clothes shop didn’t come in time. This used to annoy the hell out of me, she could never appreciate how lucky she was, at least she had a job to go to, an education, friends, healthcare, a house and enough food. I also complain a lot, ask my boyfriend! But I try to appreciate how lucky I am just to be born in a first world country. Anyway, I’m digressing. My point is that visiting places like concentration camps gives people a much needed perspective. And if this perspective enables them to become better, kinder, more appreciative people then this is a good thing.
Still, you could say this is a selfish way to look at it, seeing what visiting these places can do for you. Another way to look at it is remembrance; most of the tour guides had been affected in some way, they worked there because they wanted to share their stories, for people to remember their families. Our tour guide lost all her children and watched her husband die, she was forced to work at numerous collective farms and when the Khmer Rouge fled she walked back to Phnom Penh from the Thai border. It is important to show what these awful regimes did and highlight how the country has moved on, rather than to hide it. Perhaps it’s even cathartic. At the risk of sounding cliche, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it (not that this is ever true in reality, think of all the genocides in the past fifty years). Also the money you pay to get in goes towards local charities and supporting surviving victims. I guess I’m biased because I’m a history graduate, but I think it is so important to learn about the past. Then again, I also have the luxury of saying all this from a distance, it’s never happened to me so I don’t know how I’d feel. I know it’s different for different people, I’m also sure many want to forget it completely and move on, and they should be allowed to do that.
One of the main things that stuck with me was a photo of a young woman and her baby at the prison. It was dated 1977 and she was around 20. The thing that got to me was that this was the same age my mum would have been at that time, and also the same age my oldest brother would have been as a baby. This made it all too real, the contrast of these lives, whilst one woman held her baby in a torture prison, millions of other mothers were getting on with their normal lives.
I think visiting historical sites like these are a good thing if handled respectively and sensitively. I didn’t take any photos because it didn’t seem appropriate. But what I took away was an appreciation for humankind and a desire to be nicer to people to counteract the evil.
The memorial stupa at the Killing Fields which houses of hundreds of bones and skulls. (again taken from google images)