After visiting the prison, we traveled 15 km south of the city to the Choeung Ek killing fields where 20,000 prisoners from Tuol Sleng were taken to be killed in mass graves. Seeing this place was very disturbing and numbing. I won’t go into much detail, but the kinds of things that these people did are just beyond sick. Some of the leaders are just now being tried by the UN but no sentence will make up for their actions. In 1980 some of the mass graves were dug up to find and count remains. Over 8,000 bodies were uncovered before efforts ceased, though only about 60% of the graves were explored. A monument was constructed at the site to house the remains in 17 tiers. The bottom tiers that were visible to us featured countless skulls that left an unsettling feeling in my stomach.
When we were still at Tuol Sleng, Sophy pointed out a man to me who was sitting on a bench in the prison courtyard and shared with me his story. He was a prisoner at Tuol Sleng and was sent to the killing fields. Standing in front of the mass grave, a Khmer Rouge soldier hit him in the back of the head and knocked him unconscious into the grave below. He laid unconscious all day and the soldiers assumed he was dead, but during the night he came to. When he realized where he was he quietly looked around to find no guards present, got out of the grave and escaped to the forest where he hid until the regime was over. He is one of 7 people to survive Tuol Sleng and today sits quietly in the courtyard and reflects.
My first day orientation day in Cambodia was jarring, yes, but has already made me appreciate this culture so much. It’s been only 31 years since the Khmer Rouge lost power and in that short time, this country has come back to life. In 1979 there was no religion, no education, no economy, no electricity, no family networks, nothing. But here they are 31 years later, alive and thriving.