Our first stop in Phenom Pehn was Tol Slong, a former prison during the Cambodian genocide. Before the genocide it was a high school, but the Khmer Rouge converted it into a prison and place of torture. Little was done to convert the prison into a museum, and there were times when I was walking through the torture chambers and prison cells where the enormity of what happened at this place hit me.
The Khmer Rouge kept very accurate documentations of the torture at Tol Slong, taking pictures of every victim and there are three rooms in the prison that a devoted solely to a display of these pictures. These pictures made the incredible numbers of the genocide a little more personal. I started to think about the lives that these people never finished, the children that were never born. Who would have these people turned out to be? Was the next Einstein or Hillary Clinton tortured here and then sent off to be killed? While reading some of the only text they had in the museum (blurbs from the few survivors of the prison), I was struck by the fact that many of these prisoners were no the intellectuals of Cambodia or the dissenters of the Khmer Rouge, but rather their own supporters that seemed to be picked to at random to be tortured into making false confessions. How can people do such horrible things to seemingly random members of their own community?
A couple of us talked to our tour guide, Nak, outside of the prison (he doesn’t go inside anymore because it is too difficult for him) about his family’s involvement with the genocide. Nak’s mother’s family was able to escape to the West before the genocide began, but his father remained in Cambodia during the genocide and had to pretend to not be an intellectual to avoid being killed. He talked about going to school and hearing gun shots when he was a kid and there were still remnants of fighting because the Khmer Rouge escaped into the forests. Many people were too afraid to send their kids to school because it was the educated that were massacred during the genocide.
Nak’s stories made us realize how recent and raw this genocide is along with making it more personal for us as we all loved Nak. The Khmer Rouge were still in Cambodia, although not totally in charge, while I was alive. The Cambodian genocide is a problem of our generation and its after effects are not going away anytime soon.
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