June 6, 2011
On Saturday we had a day without any long trips to provinces for interviews. We went to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the largest prison site during the KR, which is now a museum, and then to the killing field nearby, Choeung Ek, which is also a museum. It was a very intense and emotional experience for all of us to go to the sites where the atrocities we have been learning about for weeks actually took place. Most of Tuol Sleng is preserved, so as you walk through it you see the different rooms and cells where people were held, including empty beds with torture instruments. One section of S-21 contains bulletin boards of pictures, including the “mug shot” type photos of all the prisoners that came in because the KR was so into heavily documenting who came in and out. It was really sad, especially seeing the photos of the younger children and teenagers who were also held in the prison. There were also other pictures documenting the regime as well as information and biographies of people involved. There were 7 people still alive when the Vietnamese came to liberate S21 out of the ten thousand people that had been through the prison. The ones who were still alive had posters telling their stories. One of the survivors remained alive because the KR used him to paint pictures of top leaders; they threatened to kill him if they weren’t accurate enough. He had made several paintings of the atrocities that went on in the prison, including very graphic ones of all the torture and killing that were all displayed at Tuol Sleng. Those were probably the most disturbing to me. A couple of the survivors were there when we went. Apparently they still spend a lot of time at the prison.
Here are some photos from S-21:
Afterwards, we went to Choeung Ek, one of the many killing fields where people were trucked out and then killed in mass graves. There was a small museum in front that had basic information that we already knew and a few artifacts. Then we walked around the memorial killing field. In the center there is a tower that has been filled with the cracked skulls of the victims. Walking through the field, several sites have been marked, such as the “magic tree” where there was a loudspeaker that played music to drown out the screams of people being killed. Many of the graves were unearthed and were marked according to how many bodies were found in them or describing them, such as x amount of headless victims were in here, bodies of naked women and babies were here. Probably the most terrible was a tree, the “killing tree” where cadres killed children and babies by holding babies by their feet and smashing their heads against the tree. Some photos:
One thing that was interesting to me was the amount of effort, or lack thereof, that has been put in to aesthetically presenting the information. Most of the information at Tuol Sleng and the headings of the boards with photos were essentially text printed on computer paper and then glued onto the board. Personally, it seemed kind of like a fourth grader’s class project to me. So much different from the efforts made for something like the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in the US. Obviously the Cambodian Government doesn’t have nearly enough money for that sort of thing, but for me it was just interesting to compare the extent of the preservation efforts in different places.
The rest of the day we had free to do whatever we wanted. As a group we collectively decided to visit the royal palace and take a tour. We knew there would be a dress code, so we asked the hotel what to do. They said to bring a scarf so we could cover our shoulders, chest, etc. So I wore my longer pants and a tank top and brought one of my scarves. Well turns out when we got there, you aren’t allowed to wear scarves in to the palace! The explanation we got was that scarves are a symbol of the countryside…so basically they mean you are a peasant and aren’t fit to come in to the palace. Gotta love the class system! (since we are obviously peasants) But unfortunately you also needed shoulders covered, so they directed us to buy $2 t shirts to cover us for those of us wearing tank tops. Well of course stubborn me didn’t want to buy a giant plain white T shirt and I had my green windbreaker with me, so I decided to throw that on. I was proud of my act of defiance, but also really uncomfortable for the majority of the tour because it was, of course, extremely hot. Still, the royal palace was pretty interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily go back again but I think it was good to go once sort of thing and see the various artifacts.
Some photos of the royal palace:
Afterwards, we wandered around some shops and then headed back to the hotel. A group of had planned to go the Buddhist temple across the street for open meditation hours. We thought it started at 5 but when we got there found out it was at 6, so we went to a nearby cafe. I got an iced coffee with condensed milk which seems to be a pretty common drink here and is delicous. We also saw that they had bagels with cheese and all of us realized how tired we were of all the Khmer food we were eating (too much rice!) so we decided to go back there for lunch the next day and find somewhere to get pizza that evening. We went back to the temple, and Ali, who went on the PWP trip last year and interns with me at the Shoah Foundation and came back here for her own research this summer, introduced us to the monk that had given her an intro to meditation. He told us all to get mats and cushions and meet him outside the meditation room. We all lay out our mats and he taught us the basics of meditating, and then we all went into the pagoda and tried it out. It was difficult for me to clear my mind and ignore all the itchyness and sweatiness of my body but I also felt nice and refreshed afterwards! Some of us will probably go back I think. He gave us each an intro packet and book on meditation so we can practice.
After that we all went to dinner at a pizza place that Karen recommended. Boyyy it was delicious. I split a quattro formaggi pizza with the other vegetarian on the trip. I realized how much I missed cheese! The pizza was amazing.
This morning we had an optional trip to a public education forum on genocide, in which DC Cam goes into a village and holds a forum on the Khmer Rouge, teaches lessons, has survivors speak, and teaches the kids critical thinking about the genocide, asking them to summarize points and ask questions that they may have, etc. DC Cam has distributed over 400,000 copies of the textbook written by one of their members (who was at the forum) to schools to teach about the Khmer Rouge and hold these forums to invite students, teachers, and other community members to discuss. Most of us ended up going. I definitely needed to since I want to focus on education for my research topic. The first part of the forum was a little difficult for us to understand because it was conducted entirely in Khmer (we had Kosal and a student translating for us but it was noisy in the pagoda), and really long. Afterwards though we had the opportunity to informally interview the textbook author which was very interesting, and then three of us including me also interviewed one of the students who was there about his reactions. He was adorable. He looked about 10 but was apparently fifteen and he was basically a perfect model student and seemed so interested in learning about the KR and passing on his knowledge and learning more. It was very cute. It was a great to talk to the author and the student about their different views on the effectiveness of genocide education in Cambodia. I got the interviews on video so hopefully they will be helpful.
We had the rest of the afternoon free, while Karen and Kosal interviewed activist Theary Seng, who we met with and talked to earlier in the week. We had lunch at the cafe bagel place as promised. Afterwards, we all did various relaxing things, such as napping, getting 6 dollar massages, eating frozen yogurt, swimming, reading, etc. A day of relaxation was definitely ready so that we could recharge and get back to work the next day.
For dinner, we all went to the sister restaurant of Romdeng, where we went to eat tarantulas, called Friends. The restaurants are run by a non profit organization that employs street kids and trains them as restaurant staff so that they can get jobs in the industry. The food was delicious and I think we would definitely like to go back.
As I write this, we just got back from two embassy visits today–the United States and Japan. Details will be provided in the future!
Chum reap leah! (Goodbye!)