Tuol Sleng (S-21) and The Killing Fields

Following years of civil war and bombing by the United States, that was largely kept secret from the rest of the world, in April 1975 the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Lon Nol government. As their tanks rolled into Phnom Penh they were greeted with celebrations from the Cambodian people hopeful that they would at last see some peace in Cambodia.

This wasn’t to be the case and within days almost the entire population of the city had been evacuated out into the rural countryside and set to work in labour camps. The year was proclaimed Year Zero and nothing before then was deemed to have been of any importance. The streets of Phnom Penh were closed off, shops, schools and markets were all banned and thousands of educated people were executed within the first few weeks of the Khmer Rouge taking power.

Children were hailed as the uncorrupted as they had not been tainted by what went before Year Zero and many children and young teenagers became Khmer Rouge fighters. They were taught that Angkar (The party name) was all they needed and were encouraged to participate in murders.

It’s now 6am and I have been awake since around 5 listening to the noise outside as Phnom Penh slowly wakes up. I have read a lot over the past few days and the stories have touched my heart. It’s hard to imagine how terrible it must have been for families to have been torn apart and turned against one another. At 8am I wake Simon and the kids and after breakfast we get in a tuk tuk and head off to Tuol Sleng (S-21).

Prior to the Khmer Rouge years Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a highschool. It is in the centre of Phnom Penh and was discovered by 2 Vietnamese journalists when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and liberated it from The Khmer Rouge.

As we arrive I am struck by the ordinariness of the place but did expect this. The school buildings are bathed in the bright sun but the walls are still made of corrugated metal and topped with barbed wire. We pay 2 dollars entrance fee each and set off around the 3 storey buildings. The bottom floor of the buildings held more high ranking or political prisoners. There are iron beds in some of the cells with leg shackles and photographs of the cells as they were found by the 2 Vietnamese journalists. The upper floor cells were mass holding cells.

In the second building are hundreds of black and white portrait photographs of the prisoners taken before they were executed. It is estimated that 17,000 prisoners were held at S-21 and none were freed or escaped .Everyone except 12 were exterminated, either here or nearby at The Killing Fields. It is, as expected a profoundly depressing place and although I know its complete fantasy I imagine I can smell blood as I stand on my own in on of the cells looking at the pictures of torture and horror that took place here.

The kids are very subdued by it all and Ali says it has upset him a lot. We don’t spend as long there as we expected. Once we have looked around we are all eager to leave and get back into our tuk tuk. We head off for Choeung Ek. This is the site of The Killing Fields and we want to see the memorial tower that was erected in memory of the 1000′s of people murdered there.

It is 16 km out of town and we can’t help but think about the people who made that journey from S-21 rammed in tightly together in a truck. They were executed almost immediately that they arrived, often beaten to death to save precious bullets. We arrive at Choeung Ek and sit and have a drink first. Then we make our way to the memorial tower. It is made of glass and houses 8000 skulls that were exhumed from the mass graves. We light some incense and have a few moments reflection.

We walk slowly across The Killing Fields, there are 126 mass graves and the sides are still littered with bones and scraps of clothing. I’m overwhelmed by it and stand staring around. Such a small area and so much of the ground scooped away. There are two large trees. One “the magic tree” held a loud speaker that drowned out the moans of people as they died. The others trunk was used by the executioners. They beat children to death against it.

We knew today would be hard but seeing evidence of such inhumanity is sickening. I wonder why they did it and what would I do, kill or be killed. Many of the Khmer Rouge leaders were school teachers. How did normal children get turned into monstrous, unfeeling, hateful machines? Lastly what has become of them now? Most only my age or a few years older and never brought to justice.

Am I glad we went? – Not really. Would I go there again? – Definitely not. Would I advise other people to go? – Yes I think so.