Phnom Penh: A City of Timeless Remembrance

It was the day after the Buddhist New Year on April 17th 1975, when Pol Pot claimed rule over Cambodia and sent his army of Khmer Rouge soldiers to start a war against his own people. That year, 2.3 million people – nearly the entire population of the city – fled from Phnom Penh. In the four years under the Khmer Rouge, over 75% of Cambodia’s teachers, doctors, engineers, officers, students, and other “intellectuals” were brutally murdered – having been unjustly convicted of treason – by their fellow countrymen. The city of Phnom Penh was virtually destroyed, along with all remnants of religious temples and Western possessions. After the evacuation in 1975, Phnom Penh became the headquarters for measures of “national security”. In an abandoned school house renamed the S-21 Prison, Khmer Rouge soldiers tortured 20,000 people suspected of being the “enemy.” Those not killed on site were taken in truck loads to an old Chinese graveyard, Choeung Ek, known as one of the many Killing Fields. There, they were savagely executed one by one. Their bodies were dumped into mass graves. By 1979, The Killing Fields saturated Cambodia’s soil with the tattered remains of two million people.

Once a prosperous emblem of hope, Phnom Penh is now a city of timeless remembrance. The surviving victims and their descendants will ensure this atrocity never is forgotten. Although active landmines and damaged temples remain as evidence of the past, Choeung Ek and the S-21 Prison are honored as national memorial sites, providing a lasting reminder of the blood, pain, and horror that ripped this country apart only three decades ago.

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During our visit to Phnom Penh, Jeremy and I visited both the Choeung Ek Killing Field and S-21 Prison, now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. With the Killing Field located 17km outside of the city, we went there first. I’m not sure what I expected, but I can tell you that the experience will stay with me forever.

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Entering the grounds, we were each given an audio player with headphones. A sign at the entrance indicated to keep quiet, so we followed the instructions and pressed play with pursed lips. A voice announced the beginning of our audio tour, which would lead us through the process of how this site was used for executions and burials.

For two hours we listened in silence, following our audio guide along the grounds. We stopped to observe the places where soldiers would unload the trucks, and detain prisoners. We observed the space where they used to house toxic chemicals, used for killing or to disguise the smell of decomposing flesh. We noticed the trees with razor-sharp spines that were utilized as killing instruments, slitting throats for a silent kill.

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One of the most heartbreaking sites was the Killing Tree. It was against the trunk of this tree that soldiers smashed children, even babies, until dead. Next to this tree was a mass grave. The victims uncovered in this grave were women and children, most of whom had been stripped naked and raped before thrown into the grave.

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Close by stands another tree, more beautiful than the first, but just as horrific. The Magic Tree. Magic it was that the speakers which hung from its branches played music loud enough to muffle the screams of hundreds. Magic it was not to conceal the reality of what was taking place beneath its shade.

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The end of the tour led us to the Buddhist stupa, constructed to display and preserve the thousands of human bones recovered from the graves. In this stupa, over 5,000 human skulls sat staring with hollow eyes. The cracks and holes in their cranium marked the cause of death. Their death, visible and real, came to life in that room.

Even after our audio tour ended and we returned our headsets we were silent, and walked without talking back to our tuk-tuk driver who would take us to the S-21 prison camp.

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We walked slowly around the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Stepping in to each classroom turned torture room carefully, I couldn’t help but wonder which of the stains on the floor and walls were blood. In each room, the museum has preserved some of the original torture devices as well as the photographs that were taken of the last people to be taken by S-21.

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Past the gallows and graves, thousands of photographs are now on display. As the Khmer Rouge was meticulous about keeping a record of their “work,” each prisoner that passed through S-21 was photographed and documented with a detailed, handwritten background. Many of the photographs and documents did not survive, but the ones that did can be seen at the museum.

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Most of the images are so haunting I couldn’t look at them for too long, but at the same time, I felt as if looking into the eyes of every photographed person was the only way I could truly show them respect. I looked into the eyes of hundreds of men, women, and children. Some were deformed and swollen from being beaten, some still looked beautiful. All were gazing into the camera with nothing more than the helpless look of defeat.

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It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when our growling stomachs brought us back into the present. We had spent a full day revisiting the tragedy of Phnom Penh’s past, so by mid-afternoon we were both emotionally depleted and hungry.

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Back in our tuk-tuk, we made our way to the central market. Watching the city and people zip by me, I couldn’t help but be amazed by how quickly this city has recovered. Phnom Penh today is a thriving, bustling city filled with life. Beautiful buildings and full trees line the streets. The markets are alive with merchandise and business. Even where the roads are dusty and life is not as glamorous, people are actively working towards improvement. The strength and will to survive of the people in this city is evident in their smiles, their work ethic, their resourcefulness, and their hospitality.

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After a day of feeling sad and empathetic, we owed it to Cambodians to take advantage of all the greatness Phnom Penh now has to offer. So, like a good tourist, we filled our stomachs and emptied our wallets at both the Central and Russian markets. The markets were a great place to witness the life and joy that swells within this city. Full of beauty and vibrancy, the markets of Phnom Penh rightfully boast the best in all things fashion, food, and paraphernalia.

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During our time in Phnom Penh, we also visited the National Museum of Cambodia, home to over 14,000 of pieces of Khmer art. Impressive not only because its collection out-lived the Khmer Rouge, but because it has since become a driving force for the reestablishment of Cambodian culture, religion and national pride. A cause that’s more than worthy of support.

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Getting to know the history of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, was like getting a glimpse into the heart and soul of every Cambodian I am likely to meet. It was hard to leave without feeling great remorse for what this country, this city, and these people have endured. I offer my deepest respect for the way this city has rebuilt itself and the people have overcome their despair. I truly hope that through their undying remembrance they are able to find peace and happiness without corruption.

“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” ~ Rose Kennedy

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