Frangipani wafted in the early morning air and butterflies were everywhere, when I visited Cheoung Ek, the best known of Cambodia’s infamous killing fields.
The place is a memorial to the 1.7 million people who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime between 1974 and 1979, and an obligatory stop on the itinerary of most visitors to the country. Ribbons of origami swans, with their message of peace, hang in the memorial stupa at Choeung Ek. Skulls of victims are organized by gender and age.
More than 14,000 Cambodians were interrogated at Khmer Rouge Prison S-21, previously a secondary school. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum opened in August 1979, in a compound surrounded by two rows of corrugated iron fence covered with barbed wire.
The fronts of the buildings in the complex were covered in a fishnet of barbed wire, to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. Scores of interrogation centers such as this sent Cambodian men, women and children to hundreds of killing fields across the country.
Inside, cells have been preserved much as they were when in use.
Numbers painted on walls were used as key controls to prisoners’ shackles.
The lower floors of the museum are filled with hundreds of portraits of victims, taken as they arrived.
Many victims were children. For some hellish reason, the Khmer Rouge tagged and documented those who passed through the interrogation centers before being brutally murdered in the killing fields.
Bou Meng was one of a handful of survivors of Prison S-21. An artist, he stayed alive by painting portraits of Pol Pot. Journalist Huy Vannak tells Bou Meng’s story in a little book produced by the Documentation Center of Cambodia. In it, he recounts how “ghosts of those who died follow him, hovering over him in the dark…gathering in front of his home, calling out to him to represent them and to find justice for them.”
Now 70, Bou Meng was 35 years of age when arrested. His young wife, Ma Yoeun, was arrested with him in 1976, and he did not see her again after they entered the prison complex. According to prison records, she was tortured and killed on August 16, 1977.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, and the officer in charge of S-21, was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Bou Meng testified in the trial, and called the outcome “a slap in the face and a kick in the head.” A second trial, focusing on senior Khmer Rouge leaders is now underway in Phnom Penh.
Reminding Cambodians—and the world—of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge, is now Bou Meng’s life work. I was privileged to visit Tuol Sleng when he was there signing his book.
Thank you, Bou Meng for sharing your memories, and your hopes for future justice.