No doubt you’ll have heard of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the vile atrocities they committed against their own people and many others in Cambodia. Our own knowledge though didn’t go deeper than that before we travelled to the country. So on the day we went to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (better known as S21 Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields (although there were many thousands of Killing Fields throughout Cambodia, not just at Choeung Ek), we had a sombre education in the full horror that swept across Cambodia from 1975-1979 under the Khmer Rouge.
Events leading up to the Khmer Rouge regime
The country had its fair share of problems before 1975, all helping the Khmer Rouge into power. In the 1950’s Prince Sihanouk lead the country to independence from the French and things looked optimistic, although he faced serious threats to his power from within Cambodia. The right-wing General Lon Nol despised Sihanouk’s left leaning polices and Sihanouk found little favour with the Communist Party of Kampuchea, later known as the Khmer Rouge. The American War in Vietnam fuelled polarisation of the different factions within Cambodia and in 1970, while Sihanouk was in France, General Lon Nol took control of the country in a military coup.
Cambodia then entered a period of civil war. Lon Nol with US/South Vietnamese help on one side and the Khmer Rouge bolstered by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong on the other. Despite US financial aid and carpet bombing of communist strongholds (and many civilian population centres) in Cambodia by US bombers, the small, poorly organised Cambodian army was eventually overrun by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. What followed for the next four odd years was arguably one of the worst dictatorships in history.
How to get to S21 & Choeung EK Killing Fields
Aside from the usual carefree traveller carry on in Phnom Penh, we were eager to learn more about this important period of Cambodian history. So we arranged for our guesthouse tuk tuk guy to take us out for the day to S21 and then on to The Killing Fields, at a cost of US$13 for his services.
Here’s a map to help you find the sites:
S21 Genocide Museum
Arriving outside S21 early on a cloudless afternoon, the street looked like many others in Phnom Penh. The only things that hinted at something out of ordinary were the large amount of tuk tuks on the road and lots of tourists gathering at the corner of the street, the entrance to S21.
But once we had paid the US$2 entry fee and walked into the former school grounds, it immediately became clear that terrible things had happened there. The forecourt, the former recreational area for school kids, now plays burial ground to the last 14 victims murdered by the Khmer Rouge at S21.
We then walked around the building were the victims were found and, not to over exaggerate, we could sense the despair and death that still clings to the former torture rooms. The (apparently) original iron beds and terrifying shackles that the victims died in remain in the rooms and disturbing photographs hang on the walls showing the mangled state in which the bodies were discovered.
We read the booklet given to us at the entrance and we learnt that these rooms, housed in “Building A”, were fitted with glass windows, to muffle the sound of the victims’ screams. Purge victims were held in these rooms – those in the Khmer Rouge suspected of rising up against Pol Pot. We also learnt that the prison was set up almost immediately after the Khmer Rouge had taken Phnom Penh and that enemies of the Khmer Rouge were brought here for interrogation and then killed on site or taken to The Killing Fields after a confession had been extracted from them.
To be an enemy of the Khmer Rouge was a pretty easy task – unless you were a Cambodian peasant or someone in the Khmer Rouge that Pol Pot didn’t see as a threat, then you were an enemy. Even some westerners unlucky enough to be captured by the Khmer Rouge were brought to S21 and made to sign confessions about spying for the CIA before being murdered.
Outside “Building A” there is a huge sign detailing the brutal rules of the prison that were enforced against the inmates.
One of the main, and very public, instruments of torture used by the S21 prison officers was the gallows. The pictures show how the once innocuous exercise beam was used for barbaric acts of cruelty by the Khmer Rouge.
The other buildings housed prisoners in more cramped conditions, with almost 6,000 prisoners being held at S21 by June 1978 under the supervision of a man named Kang Keck Lev, better known as Comrade Duch. He ran S21 and Choeung EK Killing Fields as head of the Khmer Rouge internal security. Those buildings now serve as tombs of remembrance to the poor souls who died there and have various displays of the victims’ clothes, photos and skulls as a warning that this cannot be allowed to happen again.
We felt slightly heavy after delving into the traumatic history of S21, but we were glad to be educating ourselves about an otherwise beautiful country that we were travelling around. In any event, as human beings, it should be impingent upon us to learn such horrific lessons – as George Santayana put it better than we ever could:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
So on we went to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. It took about 30 minutes to get there in the tuk tuk and it was an odd feeling to go whizzing past Cambodians going about their normal lives in the vicinity of one of the most infamous mass execution sites in the world. Did they think about it much? Did it freak them out? Or was it just a case of moving on with life? Probably the latter.
Compared to say the rather banal and costly Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh, for how long a visit to The Killing Fields lingers with you after, it does not cost much to get in. When we went it was US$3 admission plus an extra US$3 for an audio guide. The audio guide is excellent and caters for various languages. It takes you around the site following the fate of those who were brought there to die. They arrived usually by lorry from S21 and then were held in a make shift detention centre. Shortly after, they were taken to the edge of a pit where they were bludgeoned to death or had their throats silt by sugar palm leaves to the tune of propaganda songs blasted from speakers to drown their screams, dumped in the mass graves and had chemicals poured on them to speed up decomposition (and to finish off anyone who was still alive).
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the detention centre and other buildings at the site were torn down after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. So, from the usual tourist attraction perspective, there is little to see save a few signposts helping visitors understand what happened at particular places. But The Killing Fields is not Venice, the sights there are symbolic, the main attraction is to learn and reflect. Therefore the audio guide is a perfect way to move around in silence and pay respect to those who died by remembering them and listening to their story. There are also emotive accounts on the guide from survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime who went through unimaginable ordeals and you are encouraged to listen by finding a peaceful spot by the lake to the east of the graves.
For us, the most harrowing part of the site was standing at the foot of a Chankiri Tree (or Killing Tree) where Khmer Rouge soldiers smashed the heads of babies belonging to their victims so that they couldn’t grow up and take revenge. That was hard to think about. It is definitely an emotionally draining experience just being there and some people were walking around with pale anguished faces, others crying.
There is also a small museum at the site with displays on Comrade Duch, more general Khmer Rouge information and a video room. The video we were shown is somewhat dated but it is informative about how the Khmer Rouge came to power, how it forced everyone out of the cities to work on collective farms and how the paranoia of Pol Pot eventually lead to the downfall of the regime with him stupidly picking a fight with their once allies, the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese army entered Cambodia in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge attacked its borders and ended the Khmer Rouge control.
The video also, quite shockingly, told how the Khmer Rouge then operated as a resistance movement into the 1990s, killing thousands more Cambodians and Vietnamese, but were still supported by and had a seat in the UN until 1993. Even more sickening, for decades very little was done by the international community to bring any of the heads of the party to justice – men who were responsible for the deaths of almost 2 million Cambodians in a four-year period.
Books worth reading
If you want to read more about the terrible impact of the Khmer Rouge, we can recommend a couple of books that we have read recently. The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop is about how the author, a photojournalist, tracked down Comrade Duch in the late 1990s eventually leading to Duch’s trial and imprisonment. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung is a poignant memoir of family torn apart by the Khmer Rouge through the eyes of a young girl. These are worth a read.
Thanks for reading about this important topic and we’ll try to keep it a bit lighter next time.
The Two Gallivants