To understand the significance of visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 you need to know the history of Cambodia. Back in the 1970s there was discontent and a revolution in the country. But the good guys (if there even were good guys) didn't win the fight, and instead the Cambodia Communist Party took over. Their leaders were Pol Pot and a man that came to be known as Duch. We don't know if you pronounced that dutch, duke, or doosh, but we've all decided to call him Douche after learning more about him. Pol Pot and Duch are equal with Hitler in the crimes they have committed against humanity. They are the lowest of the low, and hell isn't even good enough for them. They took over the country, and began rounding up anyone who appeared to be intelligent. This included anyone with an actual education, most storekeepers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, and inexplicably anyone who wore glasses. Nobody knew what they were doing with them. They just all disappeared.
Right in the middle of Phnom Penh was a high school. The communist army marched in one day, killed everyone inside, and took over the school. This was your average American sized high school with a few hundred students. And they just marched in and killed all of the unarmed students. The school came to be known as S-21. The army brought all of the “intelligent” people there, calling them all spies, and supposedly interrogated them. Tortured them to death is a more accurate description. Over 3,000 people were taken there to be “interrogated” and only 10 survived. Of the 10, 3 were artists who were forced to make pictures and painting for the army and Pol Pot. One of the artists who escaped went on to paint a series of depictions of what it was like in S21 and out at the killing fields, and the original paintings now hang in S21. The paintings hang in the actual rooms where the torture depicted occurred. And because many of the torture devices were built in the rooms they cannot be removed, and are still in the rooms. You could still see the blood stains on some of the walls, and places where prisoners in the solitary confinement cells had scratched tick marks into the walls. The buildings smell terrible. One classroom was filled with glass shelves holding hundreds of skulls. On many of the skulls you can easily see the hammer marks, nail holes, and other cracks and dents from the torture.
I would easily compare this place to Auschwitz. You can't feel happy there. Just being in the buildings is dark and depressing. There is a terrible feeling about the whole place.
After that we left to go to the “Killing Fields.” I had actually said I had no interest in visiting such an awful place. But when the time came, I went anyway. I'm glad I did now, but still, it was just as horrible as I imagined.
Not unlike how the Nazis rounded up the Jews and killed them, the army did the same thing here. They rounded up people from the slums, the intelligent people, and anyone they felt was not of a pure blood, stripped them naked, forced them into trucks, and drove them to a field 15 km outside of Phnom Penh. Its nothing more than a large field at the edge of a lake or river (I never could tell which). They first made the prisoners dig deep, huge holes. And then made them all go stand down inside the hole, where they shot them. They then covered the holes back up and left. They killed over 300 people a day for 2 years like this. But after a while they had too many people arriving and not enough space left to hide the bodies. So they began torturing the women by taking the babies away from them, and smashing the babies' heads into a tree, forcing the mothers to watch. After the women had then been tortured into submission they forced them to work in the fields, preparing them for the next round of prisoners. This work often involved pouring chemicals over the dead bodies (including their own children) to make them decompose faster. There was one mass gave of over 100 bodies found of women holding their babies' heads. All signs indicate that some of the women had been buried alive. I don't even want to know the rest of the story.
We walked around the killing fields, which really weren't that big, for an hour or so. There is a small museum on-site that we went into and read about everything. Pol Pot died in captivity in the 1980s and was never tried for his crimes. Duch is now about 65 yrs old I think, and has been in prison off and on since the 1980s. (He was in exile for over 10 years.) He was only tried for his crimes in 2009, and was sentenced to a mere 35 years. He did take the credit and blame for the atrocities committed under him, and apologized to the people. Many of the other leaders never did that.
When you look around Cambodia you do notice a missing generation. There are very few old people, and even fewer people between 40-60. And the few people in that age range you do see tend to be very poor and uneducated. Anyone who was educated in that age range would have been killed. These atrocities were committed at the same time as Mom and Dad when they were newlyweds and when Natalie and I were born. If our family had lived in Cambodia we probably all would have been killed. Dad is a lawyer and Mom wears glasses, which is all it would have taken for them to be tortured for supposedly being spies, and then been killed.
When you learn about all of these things it is easier to understand how there can still be such an uneven divide in the wealth of the country, and why there are still so many slums and poor people. You have to understand Buddhism to appreciate the rest. Buddhists believe you are always preparing for the next life. Your gifts to Buddha are more important than your acts to others. So they do not help the poor people around them. They think it is more important to go to the wats and make offerings to Buddha. They would rather put $100 in the donation plate for Buddha than give $5 to a starving person. Combine that mentality with the missing older generation, and the fact that no one has an educated elder to look up to, and you start to understand how they got where they are. The best thing we can do here is give anyone who wants one a better education. Give them a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty. Just 30 years ago their families lost everything- their parents, their homes, their money. Then their country went through a deep depression, and struggled to rebuild. It hasn't been that long but they are making progress.