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West Coast Eagles

Duggo's Cambodia travel diary: Tuol Sleng & Killing Fields

I didn’t really know what to expect heading in to today, but having spoken to guys that had gone on the trip in years gone by, I knew it was sure to be confronting. As it turned out that was an understatement, the history of Cambodia is both fascinating and heart breaking.

After arriving on Thursday night, we woke on Friday and headed to the gym. In the hot, humid city of Phnom Penh, we all got a great sweat going. It was a good way to get into the day, then after lunch we headed to the Tabitha Foundation where we were introduced to its inspirational founder Janne Ritskes.

Janne is a Canadian who formed the Tabitha Foundation in 1994. Since then, millions of Cambodians have graduated out of poverty thanks to the foundation’s savings program. Her story is incredible and an hour with her wasn’t long enough, we could have listened for hours on end.

We then went for a kick-around at the International School oval down the road, it was good to stretch the legs a bit and have a bit of a kick. Then some of the Cambodian Eagles joined us for some drills, which was great fun. They have great enthusiasm and just love playing footy, that’s what it’s all about. We later had dinner with the team, a nice barbeque filled with local and western food. It was great to catch up and have a feed. They’re a great bunch of blokes, I’ll be speaking to Sellers (Adam Selwood) about grabbing some of these guys as category-B rookies!

We woke up on Saturday knowing that it was going to be an eye-opening day and one that was really confronting. We were heading to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Even though Janne had run through how bad things were there during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, when you walk inside you’re taken to another world. The first thing you see when you walk in is the 10 rules prisoners were forced to abide by at all times, it makes for difficult reading when you think about applying them to life within the walls here. Number six: “When getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all” and number nine: “If you don’t follow all the above rules you shall get many lashes of electric wire”. To think they did this to other human beings is unbelievable.

The tour we went on took us through the single cells and mass holding pens there, all of which were horrific. Paintings of what went on under Pol Pot’s reign were hanging on the walls, each one was sadder than the last. In the single cell there were iron boxes that were used as toilets by the prisoners, in the mass holding pens, hundreds of people were held, shackled to the floor unable to move. If they made noise they were whipped, they had to use communal iron boxes to go to the toilet. There was barbed wire along the front of the building; this was to keep people from committing suicide by jumping from one of the higher levels.

We were shown some of the torture instruments used by guards at the prison. Prisoners were held by their feet until they passed out before being held under water to shock them back into consciousness. This process was repeated again and again until they confessed to crimes they never committed.

Water torture was common, people held to within an inch of their life before being revived and put through it all again. It was a horrible place, but one I think that is important to see to gain a fuller understanding of what the Cambodian people have been through.

When we left Tuol Sleng the bus was pretty quiet. I guess everyone was trying to fathom just how something so horrifying could ever been allowed to operate. Then we left for the Killing Fields.

We arrived out at the Killing Fields, we were all feeling like we had a rough idea about what we were about to see, but we were all gobsmacked by what we experienced. An audio tour gives great insight to each location on the walk throughout the fields, and allows you to paint a picture in your mind of what went on in the late 70’s.

Even today as you walk along and kick the dirt on the path pieces of bone and rags fly out from under the dirt. Pits where hundreds of bodies were found in mass graves are still there. The hardest part for me was the ‘Killing Tree’, where babies were thrashed to death against it as their mothers watched on before being killed themselves.

In the centre of the field is now a Buddhist stupa, where there are over 5,000 skulls of victims who died at the Killing Fields, many of them have been smashed in or shattered. Most of the victims weren’t shot as bullets were seen to be too expensive to ‘waste’ on killing prisoners. Even the terminology of the Khmer Rouge was to send the prisoners to the fields to be “smashed”.

It was an emotional, confronting day, one I’m sure we’ll keep with us forever.