The Nazis built gas chambers for mass slaughter. You’ve heard about that, I’m sure. But have you heard about the Khmer Rouge and the way they bludgeoned their own people to death? Or the way they slit people’s throats using sharp leaves nearby? Or the way they smashed babies’ heads against a tree before tossing them into mass graves?
It was the cheapest way. And the quietest way. Bullets and guns were too loud - that’d cause suspicion.
My grandfather was killed by the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
They “put him out of his misery” when he had difficulty walking. Difficulty walking because he was blind.
But that’s just one story of the other 3 million lives that were taken during the Khmer Rouge reign.
Not only were the lives of the weak taken, but they killed anyone who posed a threat to their “revolution”. Teachers. Doctors. Lawyers. Those who spoke another language. Those who wore glasses. Even those who had soft hands, which implied they were educated intellects.
Under the command of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge army took over Cambodia in 1975 in an attempt to turn it into an independent, classless communist state relying solely on their own farmlands. But in reality, Cambodia became a slave camp. And in only 4 years, they managed to wipe out one third of the country’s entire population.
People were moved out of cities and into the countryside where they were forced to work upwards of 12 hours each day. If they resisted, they were arrested, tortured, and executed.
The Khmer Rouge set up torture prisons and killing fields, where mass executions happened, all across the country.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields that are open for visitation near Phnom Penh is only one of hundreds of killing fields spread across Cambodia. And the S21 Prison that is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, but that was once a high school turned torture prison, was also only one of countless torture locations spread across the country. They’re both now memorial sites and educational centres.
There’s nothing that can really prepare you for the feeling that overcomes you as you walk through these grounds, listening to your audio guide narrate stories of the cruelty and suffering that happened on this very soil.
It tells stories of The Killing Tree. A tree soldiers used to bash babies’ heads against before tossing them into mass graves.
It tells stories of The Magic Tree. A tree where a speaker hung that played political slogans by day and revolutionary songs by night. Revolutionary songs to drown out the screams of people as they were tortured and killed.
It tells you of the rags of clothing and bone fragments that resurface after heavy rainfall, even to this day.
And as uncomfortable and disturbing as it is to visit these sites and to hear these stories, it’s an important trip for those travelling to Cambodia.
It helps us better understand why there’s an entire generation missing.
It helps us better understand the horrors that anyone above the age of 40 in Cambodia suffered, endured, and remembers.
It helps us better understand the physical and mental scars that are still very visible in today’s Cambodian society.
But most of all, it helps us understand the strength and powerful spirit of the Cambodian people.
Dark Tourism isn’t a particularly pleasant type of travel to experience but it’s necessary. Necessary because just like the last line in the audio guide says:
“We must never forget. Tell others what happened so that we may all strive for human dignity, compassion and peace everywhere. Today and in generations to come”.