Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21) & the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

It’s inevitable to visit Cambodia for such a long time without making time to see one of the Killing Fields. Apparently, there are over 300 known Killing Fields scattered throughout Cambodia, some are overgrown and difficult to reach. Some are not.

Though the Khmer Rouge regime, headed by Pol Pot, were only in power in for 4 years, they brought devastation to Cambodia. Up to 2 million people were killed between 1975 and 1979, about 1 in 4 of the population at the time.

Pol Pot’s plan was to empower the ‘peasant class’ and eradicate intellectuals. The city of Phnom Penh was emptied, people were either forced to work on farms in the countryside or sent to jails for torture until they ‘confessed’ their crime.

Farm work was brutal, people worked long hours with a pitiful amount of food and care. Many died of exhaustion, disease or starvation.

‘Intellectuals’ sent to torture prisons or killing fields included anyone who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language.

I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum on my second day in Phnom Penh with a group from the volunteer house. Before the Khmer Rouge used it as a prison, S-21, it was an old high school. It’s located in central Phnom Penh. It’s believed that 17,000 people passed through the prison, either dying while being tortured or taken to the nearby killing field, Choeung Ek, for execution. When the Vietnamese liberated the city in 1979 (apparently the city was like a ghost town), only 11 survivors were found in S-21. (The number 11 seems to be debated on the internet, but it’s what our guide told us).

There are pictures in some of the rooms of how the bodies were found, they are pretty horrific. There are stories from some of the 11 survivors of what went on in the prison. They are also horrific. There were pictures taken of each prisoner. They are so haunting. Worse, are the pictures on display of the guards. They look like teenage boys with empty eyes.

Choeung Ek is the closest Killing Field to the main city, Phnom Penh, about 15kms away. It is also one of the largest fields. There is a small admission fee of $3USD, plus the same again for an audio guide. I visited the weekend before last with two other volunteers.

First impressions are that the field is tranquil and peaceful. And maybe it is now. But it was just so hard, walking around listening to the audio guide and the stories. I’m not sure when the field was actually discovered, but the site, as it is today, was built in 1988. Prisoners were never held for longer than 24 hours here before being executed, and bullets were never used because they were too expensive.

A stupa (memorial building) was built to house 8,000 of the skulls (and other bones) that have been recovered. They are able to be seen through the glass windows in the Stupa. The fields themselves look like massive lumps. According to the audio guide, during the rainy season, bones and scraps of clothes come to the surface due to soil movement. The caretakers leave these remains as they lie, going around and collecting them once a year. There are signs warning visitors to keep to the boardwalks. It’s incredibly confronting to see the bones that have shifted to the surface.

When exhuming the mass graves, they found a grave of 166 Khmer soldiers missing their heads. Apparently they had gone over to the Vietnamese. Another of the graves was filled with entirely woman and children. A tree beside that particular grave is called “the Killing Tree”. There’s so much more, but I don’t want to go into any more detail. It’s such a horrific part of history. And it happened not that long ago.

Someone said to me that’s it hard to comprehend how people could have done this to other people. It sums up how I feel. I don’t know if words can really describe it all.

Links to more information if you’re interested:

Brittanica’s page on the Khmer Rouge

Tourism Cambodia’s information on Choeung Ek

A short article by the BBC on the Khmer Rouge regime

A brief history on the Khmer Rouge by Time

An article by the Telegraph on S-21: Torture Prison

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