Cambodian Horror part 2 – S21 and The Killing Fields

Trying to contain the horror that happened between the years of 1974 and 1978 in two simple posts on a travel blog, is not only unjust, but impossible. Im simply trying to convey some of the stuff we saw in Cambodia in the best possibly way I can. The last post was a broad picture about the general history of the Khmer Rouge and how they ruled the country with an iron grip for four years. This post on the other hand is a bit more personal and graphical, showing the personal tragedy that so many million Cambodians experienced during the regime. This post is about the S21.

S21 B&W 5 Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng, or S21 as it’s also called (Security Prison – 21), is up there with the Nazi death camps and the Soviet prison camps in Gulag. The horrors that was commited here is impossible to describe, as words cannot describe the evil commited here. Before the war Tuol Sleng was a high school in Phnom Penh, similar to many others like it. When the Khmer Rouge took power they turned it into one of their secret centres of detention and torture. Their main objective was to find traitors to the state or to dig into people’s pasts to find out if they were intellectuals or supporters of the previous governments.

S21 - B&W Tuol Sleng Prison Barrack

One of the cell blocks at S21 containing numerous torture cellls

The high school was rebuilt with tiny cells to accomodate the growing amount of prisoners. As the goverment got more and more suspicious about it’s own people the steady flow of victims to S21 kept growing. At one point the torture center held between 1000-1500 people. It’s estimated that between 17 000 and 20 000 people went through the former high school. All except a handful died horrible deaths before being dropped off at Choeung Ek, the killing fields outside Phnom Penh. Among the thousands who met their death here there are even British, auAtralian and American citizens who were caught by the Cambodian Navy and were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Victims of the Khmer Rouge S21

Some of the victims of the Khmer Rouge at S21, the walls were covered with pictures, even of children..

Today the S21 has been turned into a Genocide Museum. It’s a highly recommended stop for anybody visiting Phnom Penh, even though the visit there is more than unpleasant. They have kept the entire place just as the Khmer Rouge left it, and there is an eerie feel over the entire place. Just walking along the long rows of cells knowing that thousands of people met their death in torture only metres away sickened me.

S21 B&W - A cell in Tuol Sleng

A torture cell in S21 with the picture on the wall of how it looked like when the Khmer Rouge left.

When the Vietnamese entered Phnom Penh it seemed like the torture had continued all the way up to the point where the Vietnamese were at the gates of the security center. Every cell in two of the prison blocks contained the pictures of Ho Van Tay, a Vietnamese combat photographer, who was one of the first person on the site. The cells still contained corpses lying ravaged on the steel bed that was an essential tool in all the electrical torture. The blood still stained the floor and the sight of the tortured limp bodies lying in the exact same room as we were standing in was absolutely horrifying.

S21 B&W 2

One of the cells as the Vietnamese found them, complete with bodies tortured to death

S21 B&W 4- Torture facility

The playground got turned into morbid torture devices like here where the victims would hang upside down with their head immersed in water.

We came in time for the free movie that was shown in one of the cell blocks. The movie itself might be good, but due to bad subtitles and bad sound we didn’t really get anything out of it. I would rather recommend sitting down and reading a bit about it yourself, seemed like their speaker system was ready for a long overdue replacement. Do make sure though that you meet up in good time, as we got there a bit late and it didnt leave us with enough time there. It’s not a place to rush through as you might want to have a look at their exhibitions regarding the Khmer Rogue and the Democratic Kampuchea in general. Reading the accounts of previous Khmer Rouge soldiers is chilling but also interesting as you get to have a look at every side in this conflict.

In the beginning of the S21 most of the bodies were buried right outside the complex. As time went on and there weren’t enoough spots to bury all the dead they started sending them to our next destination, Choeung Ek also known as the Killing Fields. The Killing Fields was simply a large stretch of land outside Phnom Penh filled with shallow holes in the ground. It was here, and to similar locations all over the country, that the Khmer Rouge transported their “enemies”, including whole families, women, children and elderly people. When they arrived they would be stuffed into small sheds where they awaited their dreaded faith, all sounds of the killing outside muffled by large speakers playing propaganda music.

The Killing Fields B&W 5

The shallow mass graves in the foreground with the Buddhist stupa in the back

The idea was simple, save as much money and bullets as possible. This caused most of the deaths at Cheoung Ek to be handed out by simple farmer tools such as hammers, shovels and pickets resulting in a hard blow to the back of the head before the victim was thrown into the mass grave along with hundreds of others. Survivors have described scenes of such cruelty that it’s simply impossible to comprehend it. Soldiers using infants as targeting practice, throwing them into the air and shooting them down or simply gutting them on their bayonettes.

Killing Fields B&W

The buddhist stupa filled with more than 5000 human skulls

We took a tuk tuk out to the Killing Fields where we were met by the memorial stupa built by the Cambodian government to mourn the people who died at this place. It’s really a fitting memorial, and probably the most disgusting, but fitting, object to be placed in memory of a horrendous act. The stupa is built in the traditional asian art, looking white and splendid against the blue sky. It’s first when you realize that the glass that covers all the four sides of the tower reveal thousands of skulls neatly stacked on top of eachother that the gloom of the place you’re in dawn on you.

The Killing Fields B&W 2

One of the many signs posted above the mass graves

The Killing Fields B&W 3

The fields themselves are shocking now, I can only imagine what it was like to be here before they were cleaned up. The pictures we saw at S21, taken right after the Vietnamese invaded, shows hundreds of mass graves all littered with decomposing bodies, bones and skulls as far as the eye can see.  The fields today look pretty serene if you can allow you mind to drift for a few seconds. the reality of it hit me hard when I gazed down into one of the mass graves, seeing pieces of what probably was a thigh bone sticking out of the dirt.

It’s impossible not to be touched by the inherent evil of a place like this.

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