Before you read this you should know that it is graphic. This isn’t a joke. Life isn’t always pretty and neither is this post. Some nasty shit has gone down in many parts of the world and Cambodia is no exception. My intent here isn’t to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. I do have a point to make and hope that by depicting the events that took place here, you understand.

The airplane descends, hovering over the cement square buildings, tropical landscape and dirt roads, finally setting down on the landing strip. Slowly navigating the exhaust filled streets, every inch is crammed with cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks. Beyond the road, dilapidated open wood structures remind me of many parts of Indonesia and India I traveled last year; homes, open to the elements, held together by whatever scraps available.

Dozens of adjacent open garages line the streets, places of business. Hanging from ropes are old power tools. Piled on the ground are stacks of tire rims, motorbike parts and rebar. Other enclosures reveal racks of used clothing, household items and cooked food, intended for sale to locals. One can quickly ascertain that there is not a great deal of income being amassed when the broken sidewalks are loaded with similar stalls competing for the same Cambodian Riel.

The next day my driver picks me up at 10am. Our very limited agenda consists only of two stops, the first of which is the Tuol Sleng Museum. After purchasing my ticket I walk outside the sparse office, look around and quickly re-enter.  I ask for the assistance of a guide; her name is Mhaurin. The museum is a high school; was a high school, until seized by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and one of the first cities evacuated by a regime called the Khmer Rouge at the onset of the Communist Party of Kampuchea victory in 1975. Soldiers instructed residents that the city would be decimated by a US air raid and that deportation to the countryside was necessary for survival. This was a lie. Roads out of the city were jammed with evacuees as were the roads leading from other cities throughout the country. In a very short time Phnom Penh’s population of over two million was emptied.

Pol Pot was leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and his Khmer Rouge army consisted predominately of boys snatched from their homes in small villages bordering Cambodia with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of these young men were living in poverty. Promised food and a purpose, they were indoctrinated, and the demented craft of exacting torture was developed on animals, to hone what would later become a means of destroying their own blood.

Pol Pot’s vision was that of a social engineered communist agrarian society, a classless existence in which the entire country consisted of peasants and the evils of city life abolished. Eliminating any intermediary steps to achieve this objective, the population was categorized into two groups “Old People,” those living rurally, and “New People,” made up of those residing in urban areas.

The terror began unfolding with the evacuation of the cities and the forcing of the Cambodian population into agricultural labor camps. Families were ripped apart and divided into numbered work units based on age and sex. The country was cut off from foreign influence. Borders were closed and all institutions, financial, educational and religious, seized.

The personified “enemies” of the regime’s distorted ideals were indiscriminately murdered, but not before undergoing interrogation. This list of enemies fell into every category imaginable beginning with anyone with connection with the former government of Cambodia or any foreign governments. The intellectual elite followed, viewed as the greatest threat to the new existence and an embodiment of free-market capitalism, the very essence of what the Khmer Rouge set out to destroy.

Tuol Sleng, or S-21, as it was assigned, was a high school converted into a torture camp. The methods were crude. Prisoners’ fingernails were pulled out, appendages chopped off and chlorine poured in.  They were bound, hoisted over a wooden beam, turned upside down, spun and beaten unconscious. The captive men were then dipped in chemical-filled vats to revive them. They were shacked to metal bed frames and electrocuted, forced to admit they were KGB or CIA, and subsequently provide names of family, friends and colleagues.

Artists, teachers, ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai, Christians, Muslims, Buddhist monks and the Catholic Church, all enemies. Anyone educated was considered a menace and anyone with a religious calling, a “social parasite”. The former were killed the latter, Monks and Nuns, defrocked and killed or forced into labor. Temples, churches, cathedrals and mosques were demolished. Any scrap of religion, culture or unity was to be decimated in the name of the new society.

Sick, hungry, weak and desperate, the laborers, as they were reduced to, were forced to work twelve hours a day or more in the scorching heat. Food was scarce; they were provided little more than a daily handful of rice. Those not executed were dying from malnutrition, exhaustion and disease; children were murdered to avoid avenging the deaths of their parents. The Khmer Rouge had a motto: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

Approximately 17,000 prisoners passed through the gates of Tuol Sieng before being transported to sites now known as the Killing Fields, where they were executed and dumped into mass graves. Bullets were too expensive to waste; instead the means of death included pickax, club and spiny leaves of palm trees, used to slice throats. There are an estimated 20,000 of these sites located all over the country. Only twelve prisoners were known to have survived the ordeal at Tuol Sieng.

The Khmer Rouge reign finally came to an end when the Vietnamese armed forces invaded Cambodia and in January of 1979 seized Phnom Penh. They subsequently found the schoolhouse, abandoned, and the twelve dead prisoners, still shackled to the bed frames. Their bodies were buried in the school courtyard in remembrance.

The Killing Field Choeung Ek, is now the site of a Buddhist memorial park, constructed around the mass graves of many thousands of victims that died here. It’s a peaceful place of introspection, commemorating the tremendous loss this country has endured.

There is no happy ending here, no happily ever after. Cambodians, slaughtered at the hands of Cambodians. Three years. Three months. Eight days. 1.7 Million people[1], dead. Friends lost neighbors. Husbands lost wives. Mother’s lost children.

Mauhrin’s brother was one of these children. She was thirteen years when she was separated from her family. She was forced to walk 180 miles (290 kilometers) from Phnom Penh to Battambang. The journey took three months on roads congested with others making the same trek, stepping over the bodies of the dead. Upon reaching Battambang she was put to work in the fields where she labored with the others, desolate and afraid.

She knew the number of the group her mother was sent away with. When released, she ran and ran until she found her. Her father, a teacher and older brother, a student, were both killed. Today her mother is 88 years old.

I cried. From the moment I stepped foot in the first room of the schoolhouse and saw the picture of the dead prisoner found here. I cried looking at the metal bed frame and the shackles he was bound with. I cried in the second room and in the third and in the fourth. I cried looking at the hundreds of photographs taken of the prisoners: men and women, girls and boys. I cried for the hundreds of thousands of innocent people they represent. I cried for Mhaurin, for her mother and her father and older brother. Mostly I cried because the pain was unbearable.

Millions of deaths cannot be for nothing. There must be a lesson here. Cambodia is only one example of many. Too many. One in every five men women and children were killed. ONE in every FIVE.

It would be pointless to bring up such graphic detail about past events for the sake of retching through emotional circumstances that will forever remain unchanged. My point is, there are valuable lessons here and genocide is not a thing of the past. It is occurring now. Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, Congo – millions of human tragedies over what? Religion. Race. Money. Power.


Children are being ripped from their families and trained as soldiers. These are real children. Children that should be receiving an education. Children that should be embracing their cultures and loved by their parents. Women are being raped and young boys, programmed as killing machines. Governments are orchestrating the slaughtering of their own people. You don’t have to see it firsthand to know it is real. Look at Syria. Look at Sudan. These massacres are very, very real.

We live in the most influential nations in the world. What good is our freedom if its not exercised? What good is power if not used toward something meaningful? Progress is not a mere measure of GDP. Until we tell our governments that we think these causes are worthy of our attention, they won’t be. We are NOT powerless. We have a voice. And this human tragedy only ends when we stand up and say enough.

There is change happening; we are on the brink of possibility. Never before have we been able to make a difference so quickly. With a click, everything can change. But it requires opening our eyes and acknowledging that the world is a small place and that human life is indeed valuable. What good is history if we don’t learn from it? As individuals, as nations and as a human race, we can help or we can sit back and watch while the planet self-destructs.

We have an opportunity to be part of the solution. Each one of us, as individuals, has personal power and a choice. And whether we want to admit it or not, doing nothing is also choice.

Live. Learn. Most importantly: Lend your voice.

~ by Christine Fowle


[1] Based on Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program data.