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The smiling faces and charm of aging European colonial architecture one finds in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh is not enough to drown out the tormented screams of a generation lost.

Cambodians are a proud people and always have been, since the ancient Khmers built the wondrous temple of Angkor Wat. They are warm, kind and hospitable to a fault. However, beneath the surface lies darkness, a deep, all-encompassing blanket of sadness. It makes the young act old and adds tread in wrinkles to the faces of all. Behind every smile, behind every gesture of friendship, it is there, on every weary face.

To appreciate the beauty of the country and its people is to understand their pain. As any Cambodian will tell you, all travelers who find themselves in Phnom Penh must visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school turned secret Khmer Rouge prison and interrogation facility, and the infamous “Killing Fields” of Choeung Ek.

It is not for the faint of heart, and to do so, one must be prepared to enter the gates of hell. A Khmer Rouge government slogan tells you all you need to know.

“To keep you is no gain; to lose you is no loss.”

In April 1975, communist Khmer Rouge forces led by Saloth Sar, otherwise known as Pol Pot, took Phnom Penh after five years of war. They ordered everyone out of the cities and into forced labor communes in the countryside.

Approximately 1.7 million people, or almost a quarter of the country’s population at the time, perished soon after, victims of three years of murder, forced labor and malnutrition. In their quest for a pure, communist, agrarian society, one could be killed simply for being an intellectual, an artist, a professional, being bilingual, having soft hands or wearing glasses.

To this day, it remains one of the most heinous examples of genocide in human history.

During the reign of Pol Pot, those who were branded enemies of the state were first taken to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, a concrete block where students were once educated. Now, it was where they were taken to meet their deaths.

Here, they were tortured into making elaborate confessions detailing whatever they were accused of. They were waterboarded, shocked, raped and had teeth or fingernails pulled from their bodies.

When the Vietnamese took the city in 1979, they documented the atrocities at the prison, including 14 contorted and tortured corpses found in cells. Tuol Sleng remains largely as it did then, except the bodies have been replaced with photographs that also show the cells were left as is.

In a courtyard outside, a rack and pulley system looks prepared to stretch the next helpless soul. The pots where they would dunk their heads, reviving them from the brink of death, to be tortured some more, are also there still.

For a time, the Khmer Rouge buried prisoners who had been killed on-site. However, as the bodies started to mount, they began to ship the people to sites in the countryside where they were executed and buried in mass graves. One such place was Choeung Ek.

The Killing Fields are a place where reality is so hard to comprehend, it can only be fathomed as nightmare. Upon entering, audio recordings of one of the few survivors thanks you for taking the time to endure the horrors to honor the lost.

As you walk around the sprawling grounds and dozens of mass graves, clothes, bones and teeth are strewn about the premises. They belong to Cambodian men, women and children, the Chinese, the beheaded corpses of Khmer Rouge soldiers suspected of offenses, entire families — as they didn’t want someone who was not killed to come back and seek revenge.

Trucks would pull up to a processing facility and cells. Blindfolded prisoners were herded to large pits where they were hacked with tools like hammers and machetes because bullets were expensive. Many were tossed in alive. The sound of a diesel generator and revolutionary songs were used to drown out the moaning. Pesticides were sprayed over the bodies to finish the job.

Signs at Choeung Ek tell you not to walk in the mass graves, but with the fall rains, you learn even the designated paths are part of them and you trip over still-clothed bones, bleached white, sticking up from the ground.

You pass a large tree — called the “Killing Tree” — where executioners would smash babies to death, leaving brain and blood caked on its trunk.

Small bones are left in the ground, as they are too plentiful to pick up. Then there is the tower of 9,000 human skulls.

As of 2000, there were 300 similar fields found all over Cambodia. Some have been turned into memorials; others have faded into overgrown and heavily mined jungles.

Politically, Cambodia has tried to move on. A less repressive regime in former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen holds the seat of power today. But with Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields, the memories of the lost endure, as does the nightmare. It lies in the concrete walls of Tuol Sleng, the mountains of skulls at Choeung Ek, and in every wrinkle on a Cambodian’s face.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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