Witnesses to the Genocidal Acts of the Khmer Rouge

Today was filled with tears, disillusionment, and resistance. Just a short bus drive from our hotel in the middle of the bustling city of Phnom Penh, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also known as S-21. Before the Khmer Rouge invaded the capital in 1975, the compound was originally constructed and operated as a high school. Once the regime took power and control of the city, it was turned into a place of imprisonment and torture were almost 20,000 were tortured and later murdered. When the Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979, 3 million people were missing from the country.

We walked the compound in solemness and disbelief of the atrocities committed at S-21. To hear of electrocution, coercion of guilt with made-up crimes through torture, the collecting of the names of family friends of the prisoner who would also be detained and executed. We walked through buildings of pictures upon pictures of the lives that were destroyed in the search for power and determination. We saw the horror and pain in the eyes of these people. We are now witnesses to these atrocities.

We had the incredible opportunity to talk to one of the survivors of S-21, Chum Mey who now works with the museum, offering tours and sharing his experience. I was handling my emotion well throughout the morning until Mr. Chum Mey said that he wanted to take us to his cell. He then showed us the chain that he was restrained with and put it back on, essentially reliving his detention. Tears flooded my eyes. Tears of sadness and hope. The Khmer Rouge did not want anyone to know of their atrocities to Cambodians, yet Mr. Chum Mey has found his survival and resistance towards the covering up of such atrocities by making his story and experience known and by using his chains to show his liberation and freedom from them.

In our conversations with our professors, in light of our tour and tears at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, we felt angered by the United States inability to recognize our own genocide of native peoples. While we have erected some museums, we fail to illuminate the atrocities and genocidal acts that we committed against the native peoples. We bore witness to such atrocities in Cambodia and thus, must bear witness to our atrocities here at home, despite the emotional weight it brings. We must bear collective witness if we are to move forward in reconciliation.

Our group in front of one of the buildings of S-21 with a survivor of the genocide, Mr. Chum Mey