We sit inside a room that was used by the Khmer Rouge to extract thousands of false confessions. Our audio device is telling us the story of a young sailor from New Zealand who, by bad luck of the tide, was forced to wait out a storm in Cambodian waters. A wicked twist of fate that was to be his tragic downfall. He was shortly after taken capture; tortured and forced to sign a fake confession, claiming that he was an FBI spy.
His name was Kerry Hamill and his brother, Rob talks on the audio guide, celebrating his great bravery and humour through those impossible times.
What made this story incredibly poignant to us is that two years ago, we met Rob when he attended our old work’s staff conference as a guest speaker; talking of his adventures rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. The pain as he talks about his brother is evident and really made the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge committed, feel so much more personal and close to home.
We shed a tear and listened to the story of Tuol Sleng or ‘S21’ prison and how it became synonymous with those 3.5 bloody years in Cambodia’s all-too-recent history.
A WORD OF CAUTION
Before we start, I want to give you an opportunity to stop reading.
This is not a post that will fill your heart. It is not a post of inspiring adventures or a post that you can look at and hope to find any heart-warming hope, or retrospective life lessons. For us, just re-visiting S21 and the killing fields in writing leaves us with a deep pit in our stomach, and a topically current realisation that having a democracy and choosing a just and right leader that follows the rules and sanctions of the country is so, so, SO important…
THE KHMER ROUGE - A LITTLE HISTORY
The Khmer Rouge was formed in 1968 with an aim was to liberate its people from the Khmer Republic. A party whose roots were deeply Communist, it also combined elements of Nationalism and Xenophobia… the obvious ingredients to any great dictatorship.
In 1975 the Khmer Republic was overthrown and thousands of troops descended on the capital city of Phnom Penh. Just two days later, the same city whose people swarmed the troops in celebration, were forced out of suburbia and into the villages and farmlands.
The Khmer Rouge’s idea was to wipe the slate and return Cambodia to a purely agricultural society. It was this decision that ultimately saw the decimation of its population as the city people failed to cope with the demands of rural life (simply by being without either the skills or the tools to be given a chance).
The result was up to a staggering 3 MILLION deaths. At least half of these were down to disease and starvation, with the remainder down to executions. In truth, the regime, headed by their leader, Pol Pot, operated to the mantra: ‘To keep you is no benefit – to destroy you, no loss.’
Quite simply – he believed that by killing, he was curing Cambodia – purging it of its ills.
‘S-21’ GENOCIDE MUSEUM
Formerly a high school, the complex was converted into a prison and interrogation centre and named S-21. The buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison cells, and the windows were covered with bars to prevent escapes.
S-21, or ‘Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum’ was one of at least 150 such centres in the country under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. But its importance was magnified due to the condition that the Vietnamese found it in when they arrived in the city to liberate the Khmer people.
There was not enough time for the guards to dispose of all the evidence of their crimes, and so the building and its bare contents remain in situ on the outskirts of Phnom Penh city, as a painful epitaph to the memory of the roughly 17,000 prisoners that made their way through the dark corridors of the former school… of this 17,000 there were only seven known survivors.
It was not so much of a prison as a holding station; a place to extract false confessions before the prisoners were taken on to the killing fields for ‘disposal’.
Upon arrest, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies. They were forced to strip down to their underwear before being taken to their makeshift cells which were small and overcrowded. Their haunting first / last portraits now line the former classroom walls.
Prisoners, while stationed here, were riddled with disease and malnutrition; they slept naked on the cold floors without mats, mosquito nets or blankets and were subject to cruel torment by the guards (who were largely only children at between 15 and 19 years old; many operating under duress and fear of imprisonment themselves!).
THE CRUEL ART OF TORTURE
The sole purpose of the prison was to extract a confession. Put simply, it was for the Khmer Rouge to legitimise their arrest & satisfy their paranoia. The torture system in Tuol Sleng was designed for pushing people to their limits and taking them to the brink of death, but ultimately not killing them, for if they die, they can’t confess!
Images of the scenes met in each room by the Vietnamese on liberation, hang on the walls next to stripped back, rusted metal beds and instruments of torture – these photographs only scratching the surface of what would have gone on in those rooms.
Prisoners were regularly beaten and tortured using electrical currents, searing hot metal instruments and hanging. Scalding, suffocation, cutting, pulling of fingernails, waterboarding, and rape were all also used. For the most difficult of prisoners – the horrific torture of being skinned alive…
Sooner or later, everybody confessed. Typical confessions ran into thousands of words where the prisoner would interweave genuine elements from their lives with imaginary accounts of their espionage activities for the CIA, the KGB, or Vietnam. Their concocted stories a seeming light at the end of the torture tunnel.
For Kerry Hamill, it seems implausible, but his long and detailed confession was to form a full 13 page document detailing exactly how he was trained as a CIA agent, his salary, descriptions of his superiors and so many intricate details of his life in the CIA…. a life that didn’t exist! Such was the desperation.
Although the confession at the face of it seems like defeat, if you look closely, it screams with humour and defiance.
He describes how he was trained by ‘Ray Davies’ (lead singer of 60’s English rock band, the Kinks), how his superior was ‘Colonel Sanders’ (of KFC fast food chain fame), and how he was trained in communication by a ‘Mrs S. Tarr’ (the name of his mother ‘Esther’). The final piece of the puzzle; how he received psychological training from ‘Major Rouse’ (a nod to his mockery).
If you would like to know more about his story – there is a website and documentary set up by his brother, Rob, detailing all that they know: http://brothernumberone.co.nz/
And to think this is just one account of 17,000… 17,000!
THE KILLING FIELDS OF CHOEUNG EK
Once the Khmer Rouge had their confessions, the prisoners were loaded into trucks and taken to a site called Choeung Ek; a former orchard, South of Phnom Penh city. The prisoners presumed that they were just being taken to another facility – after all, they had confessed… But the reality was that this was the end of the line.
Choeung Ek is just one of many burial sites that litter the Cambodian countryside. So far, a total of 8,895 bodies have been discovered in the various mass graves here after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime; though walking around, clothes and bones can still be seen making their way to the surface.
We once again opted for the audio guide that assisted in building a picture of how the site would have looked not 40 years ago and the horrors that took place here. It told stories of the murdered, murderers and family of those who have lost loved ones… a sobering and emotional follow-up to our already harrowing morning at S-21.
Central to the site is a more recently constructed Buddhist Stupa, filled with over 5000 of the human skulls found at the site. Those who visit are encouraged to pay their respects at this monument, where information on the skulls markings and damage are detailed; the weapons used on them, displayed in cabinets below.
The killing process was as simple and crude as the interrogation process; Lead the prisoner to the lip of the pit, hit them with a base weapon like a pipe or axe handle, then slit their throat with a knife… or, if a knife wasn’t available; the sharp, serrated base of the local palm fronds (below).
The Khmer Rouge were thorough with their extermination. Believing that any wrong done by the parents could be passed on to the children and relatives, and also out of fear of retaliation by such people later in life, children and elders were also killed.
Half way around the site and we were introduced to one of the most shocking parts of the memorial. The Killing Tree. Here, the Khmer Rouge executioners would hold infants and babies by their legs and ‘smash’ their heads against the tree, before throwing them without care into the mass grave behind them.
We are played a haunting musical track- a seemingly cheerful Communist anthem that would have been played each night to mask the screams and sounds of bludgeoning from those prisoners unknowingly waiting out their fate in huts nearby. The whole tour culminating in a terrifying sensory overload.
DARK TOURISM : WHY DO WE DO IT?
Our visits to the Cambodian genocide museums and memorials fall most definitely under the category of ‘Dark Tourism’; the definition of travelling to places associated with death and suffering. We do not make these journeys out of fascination for the morbid, but out of a willingness to understand.
Like the WWII death camps of Europe or as recent as the World Trade Centre site in New York, we feel it is important to recognise a places history in order to better understand how it and its people are in the present.
Dark Tourism is not a new concept. For example; people have been visiting the ruins of Pompeii and the historical Tower of London for centuries… but with people nowadays actively trying to make a more conscious effort to consume sustainably, eat healthily and live ethically, it has almost become an extension of this want and need to know where things come from, that make these places increasingly popular with travellers- to know a countries origin, inner workings and past, no matter how dark.
It’s hard to really summarise what it is like to visit a place like this. Will it be a place that we will look back on with fond memories? Of course not. The whole day was unbelievably difficult both physically and emotionally to digest, and reminded us greatly of our visit to the museum in Hiroshima back at the start of our travels.
Our Tuktuk drive back to the hostel was long & quiet, and gave us time to reflect.
The reason these places exist is not to provide a dark and gruesome freak show that make us say “Wow – look what they were doing back then…” These places are important because they show us what we are capable of RIGHT NOW.
This was one of the hardest days experienced on our travels so far, but also one of the most informative. Would we go back? Not likely. But then we’re not likely to forget any time soon either. Do ‘history days’ like this make it onto your travel itineraries or would you rather avoid them altogether? What places have you visited that stick with you the most? How do you feel about the increasing popularity of ‘Dark Tourism’? Let us know below.