A Heartbreaking History

Foreword: The following narrative details some events of the Cambodian Genocide. I struggled a lot with what to write, how to write… and even if to write about the immense tragedy and what we saw. Ultimately, I decided to share our experience below. Visiting the memorial sites taught both of us more than we’d ever imagined about the tragic events, and we thought that, although disheartening and raw, sharing what we learned may help others to better appreciate Cambodia’s somber past. I think by immersing yourself in the bad, along with the good, you gain a greater sense of compassion and awareness – two things we could all probably use a bit more of.


Although rich with tradition, ancient relics, picturesque pastoral landscapes, and warmhearted communities, Cambodia also bears the scars of a most harrowing and heartbreaking history. In the late 1970s, in one of the worst acts of genocide in recent history, some two million Cambodians – roughly 25% of the country’s population – lost their lives under Pol Pot’s savage Khmer Rouge regime. Following years of conflict that included the lengthy Cambodian Civil War, on 17 April 1975 a now-dominant Khmer Rouge power seized and evacuated the capital of Phnom Penh – a city that had recently swelled with an influx of national refugees, fleeing from rural regions to escape intense bomb campaigns. Under Pol Pot’s command, all city dwellers were forced to the countryside, in an effort to restart society at “year zero,” as a classless, agrarian nation. Particularly targeted were intellectuals, those who were most likely to threaten Pol Pot’s power and principles – educated doctors, lawyers, teachers, and artists, revered monks, skilled workers, and even individuals who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language were persecuted. During this time, the Cambodians faced a variety of horrific fates – some were executed immediately, many were imprisoned, and countless others were driven into forced labor, where scores died from starvation, disease, or the consequences of brutal working conditions.

Just 10 miles south of Phnom Penh lies Choeung Ek, a former longan orchard that became one of a vast number of “killing fields” spread across Cambodia. Individuals who had been detained by the Khmer Rouge were brought here 20 to 30 at a time, blindfolded in the backs of pickup trucks, and killed immediately, one-by-one, upon arrival. On the days when a few hundred people were trucked in, many were forcibly crammed into a dark shed overnight, until the executioner had time to kill them the following morning. At Choeung Ek alone, an estimated 20,000 people were murdered, often brutalized with simple agricultural tools before being dumped into more than a hundred mass graves.

While history courses offer a general overview of such events, many of the horrifying details are often omitted, and nothing can prepare you to see such a site with your own eyes, albeit decades later. A moving audio tour with individual headsets guided us, at our own pace, around numbered locations spanning the now-peaceful grounds of Choeung Ek. By the time I arrived at station #6, I had totally lost it, and wasn’t sure I could continue as I unsuccessfully attempted to fight back tears. Here, the calm voice on our audio pointed out a stunted palm tree that, to me, just looked so beautiful in the early morning light. The voice swiftly went on to describe how the razor-sharp fronds were used to violently slit victims’ throats to prevent them from screaming and causing a commotion. I don’t know if it was because it was the last thing I expected to hear as I admired the little tree, or because it was one of the most gruesome things I had ever heard, or because I could make out the knife-like edges of the thick stalks, but the magnitude of what lay before me suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. I was standing there in total well-being and freedom, and I couldn’t take it; I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like to actually be confronted with such a devastating fate.

I managed to recompose myself until station #16, the “killing tree,” where executioners would mercilessly slaughter young children and infants by beating their heads against the thick trunk. Their rationale for murdering these children was that in order “to dig up the grass, one must also dig up the roots.” Just a few meters beyond the “killing tree” stood the “magic tree,” where Khmer Rouge officials had hung a number of loudspeakers within the large canopy. From this location, the amplifiers would continuously blast revolutionary music, in an effort to mask the sounds of victims’ screams as well as the roaring diesel generator that was onsite. Suddenly, the deafening cacophony, the last sound the innocent masses would hear before their executions, reverberated through our headsets. It was the most excruciating sound I have ever heard, and one that I likely will never forget. As we completed the tour and walked back to the entrance gate, shaken and silent, we made one final stop at the memorial stupa, a towering monument that houses some 8,000 skulls of the victims of Choeung Ek, and a vivid reminder of the terror that swept through the once-tranquil farmland.

To say it was a difficult visit is a profound understatement, and what I could not get out of my head was the fact that one out of every four people in the country was killed. I had only one picture in my mind as the words replayed themselves – one in four:

From Choeung Ek, we rode in total silence back to Phnom Penh, where we spent the second half of the day at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Situated within Phnom Penh’s dense metro area, the Khmer Rouge covertly converted the former Tuol Svay Pray High School into security office 21 (S-21), the regime’s most notorious detention center. From the outside, Tuol Sleng still looks like an ordinary school – a group of four buildings surround a tree-lined courtyard, all nestled within a bustling downtown district. Inside the drab concrete walls, however, a much more disturbing story unfolds. From 1975 to early 1979, S-21 served as a secret prison and interrogation center, directed by the ruthless prison chief, Comrade Duch. Thousands of detainees were killed at the hands of Duch, and his meticulous records included a “must smash” list, marking victims for certain and imminent death at the nearby killing fields.

As we walked through the complex, again listening to an audio tour on our personal headsets, room after room, building after building presented more of the same – large interrogation rooms contained a single bedframe and an old, metal ammunition box that served as a toilet, while dozens of other rooms had been divided many times over using brick or wood to create narrow cells. Along the checkerboard floor, metal rings protruded from patches of roughly-poured concrete, which were used to chain prisoners to the floor. At any one time, some 1,000 to 1,500 people were confined at S-21, fettered in tiny cells and enduring vicious torture as they were relentlessly interrogated by KR authorities. Some died during the brutal treatment, but most were trucked off to the killing fields at Choeung Ek. People did not enter S-21 to serve a temporary sentence; they were brought here to die. Of the 15,000 to 20,000 Cambodians imprisoned at S-21, there were only twelve that survived.

Ultimately, Vietnamese liberators (waging their own agenda against the KR) captured Phnom Penh in January 1979, ousting the Khmer Rouge as Pol Pot abruptly fled the city – 3 years and 8 months after the regime first began its massacre. Unfortunately, at S-21, officers mercilessly tortured the remaining fourteen prisoners as troops closed in on the city, making sure to leave behind no survivors as they quickly fled for safety. After the emancipation of the capital, citizens slowly returned to their deserted city, struggling to rebuild their lives and their families. Meanwhile, a decade-long occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese ensued, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the KR was completely dissolved, and that peace began to finally be restored to the war-torn country. While Cambodians won’t soon forget the tragic bloodshed that ravaged their homeland, they’ve shown an unbelievable capacity to persevere, and are filled with a truly indescribable warmth and spirit.

As we finished our tour of Tuol Sleng, we pulled off our headsets and walked silently toward the exit gate, struggling to process everything we had seen that day. Unexpectedly, just to our right, we noticed an older gentleman seated under a small green tent. He had windswept gray hair and a kind smile, and was neatly dressed in a striped button-down shirt. Propped up beside him, a name printed in black on a paperback book caught our eyes… Bou Meng. It was one of the very few moments I can recall where I was so overcome, I could feel my mouth drop open as I froze abruptly in my tracks. Bou Meng was one of the mere twelve survivors from the roughly 20,000 prisoners who were brutally tortured and killed at S-21. Only moments earlier, we had learned his story as we admired his artwork that adorned the otherwise-bare prison walls. Imprisoned at S-21 on 16 August 1977, he was saved from certain death by his talents as an artist. Duch recruited Bou Meng to paint a portrait of Pol Pot, but warned him that he would be killed immediately if his work was not suitable. Bou Meng completed his painting after nearly three months, and Duch was impressed by his efforts. His life was spared and he was then instructed to paint portraits of other communist leaders, as well as propaganda pieces for the KR’s campaign. Today, nearly forty years after his confinement at S-21, Bou Meng now sits almost daily in front of the building where he was once abused, trying to make a modest living selling his memoir and striving to increase awareness of the regime’s unimaginable cruelty, to prevent such acts from ever recurring. On the table next to him sat a black-and-white photograph he still admired with deep affection. It was an image of his wife, Ma Yoeun, a former midwife who, regretfully, did not survive the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. To hear the horrific stories of those imprisoned at S-21 as we toured the facility was gut-wrenching. But to then step out and look into the eyes of someone who had endured it… it was beyond words. I wish I had known more to say to him in Khmer, but I’m not sure I could have even found the words in English. All I could do was utter a choked ‘akun,’ bow my head in a humble sampeah, and feebly attempt to stop the tears from streaming down my face as he gave me a warm embrace.

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