S-21 and the Killing Fields

I have no words that express the level of sorrow and horror I experienced walking through the S-21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. This post will be brief, not because I consider this a topic to be avoided but because I could never properly convey the suffering of the victims during the Cambodian Genocide. Walking through first S-21 Museum and then the Killing Fields is soul crushing.

“The Gallows” originally had ropes for children to climb in PE. When the Khmer Rouge took over, it wasn’t used for execution despite its name. Instead prisoners were hoisted into the air by their hands which had been tied behind their back. When they passed out, they were lowered and revived in jars of excrement and urine.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or more commonly S-21) was once a school. It had an outdoor exercise frame, large airy classrooms and open balconies connected the classrooms. This was a place of learning, joy and laughter, but then on 17 April 1975, Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh. Within days the city was deserted, all its citizens forced out into the countryside at gunpoint as Pol Pot began creating his communist utopia where the peasant farmers were his “heros”.

The barbed wire across one of the balconies.

Then this school became a prison. The exercise frame was use to torture prisoners into confession; the classrooms became tiny cells, torture rooms or were left as mass cells where prisoners lay together with their feet shackled to an iron bar; the balconies were covered with barbed wire after a prisoner tried to leap from them. Now it is a museum and people come to learn once more, but joy has long since fled the grounds and now only grief remains.

A memorial for all the victims of S-21.

The Khmer Rouge systematically and purposefully destroyed the country’s economy and any connection to western capitalism. Currency was outlawed, machines were left to rust and Cambodians were put to work in farming collectives with demands for impossible yields of rice hanging over their heads. Many of them were city dwellers with no experience of how to grow crops. People quickly began to starve, grow ill and die. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge killed “intellectuals”. People who could speak another language or who had a degree or who wore glasses. Doctors, lawyers, teachers. And then their families. What was most chilling was the way prisoners were not allowed to die until a confession had been tortured from them. Only then would they be executed.

The dips here each mark where a mass grave once existed. Some graves were as deep as five metres and pieces of clothing and bone still surface to this day.

The Killing Fields were where the executions were carried out before bodies were shoved into pits. Bullets were too expensive so whatever tools on hand were used. The most common method was a strike to the back of the head followed by a slit throat. Loudspeakers played communist songs to cover the screams and a diesel generator provided the only light as prisoners were killed at night. The hardest part of the entire day was standing in front of the tree where soldiers had taken babies and toddlers by their feet and smashed their heads against a tree before they were thrown into a mass grave with their mothers.

Even the man who was in charge of S-21 and a seasoned torturer broke down and cried in front of this tree when bought to the killing fields before his trial.

Both museums were really well done but it is worth noting the audioguides are an absolute must to truly learn about the genocide. I can still feel the skulls of victims staring at me from the stupa of the Killing Fields and it will be a long time before the knowledge of the Cambodian Genocide and the 1-3 million deaths it claimed cease to haunt me.

The stupa at the Killing Fields, filled with skulls and bone fragments, stands to remember the victims of the Khmer Rouge, but is also a reminder of what happens when the world watches a madman from the sidelines and does nothing.

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