Khmer Rouge & Choeung Ek / Killing Fields
It is no secret that one of my reasons to go to Cambodia was rather morbid – a interest in the dark parts of human history has brought me to many sites of horrible tragedies and massacres. Cambodia was the site of unspeakable cruelty, inhumanity and genocidal madness under the rule of the Khmer Rouge lead by Pol Pot back in the 1970s.
Shortly explained, Pol Pot led a communist revolution in Cambodia with the end-goal of making everybody equal. This was done through brutal means of forcing the educated elite and all city-dwellers in general out into the country side to become peasant farmers.
The cities, including Phnom Penh, fell into deep disrepair during these years, as there was nobody left to maintain the infrastructure.
People would get quotas of farming to fulfill which required hard physical labor all day long, and the city-people who weren’t used to this kind of work and didn’t know how to farm even, were basically worked to death. Beyond this, any kind of dissidents were arrested and put into torture prisons where they were tortured to the brink of death to make them admit to various crimes they were innocent of. Many people were killed in these ways. When someone was singled out as a anti-revolutionary, they were killed along with they family – including children, because the mantra of the revolutionaries was “To eliminate weeds, one must pull them out with root and all”. The reign of Pol Pot lasted from 1975 until 1979 when the Vietnamese army went into Cambodia and easily overthrew the Khmer Rouge as the military was also essentially eliminated at this point.
When the country started working its way back to the pre-Khmer Rouge state, hundreds of mass-graves, prison camps, extermination camps called killing fields and torture prisons were uncovered. It is estimated that 1,5-2 million people were killed during these 4 years, which is over 25% of the population. This is obviously a deep national trauma, that is still in fairly recent memory.
Some of the killing fields and torture prisons are now converted into museums that you can go visit. Of course I went there.
From Phnom Penh it’s easy to visit the Killing Fields that is located a little ways out of town. There’s plenty of tours going there, otherwise it’s a simple drive by tuk-tuk to get there.
The Killing Fields / Choeung Ek Genocidal Center covers a fairly large area, that consists of several mass graves, remains of buildings used for various extermination purposes, displays of recovered clothes, bones, teeth etc. that is still to this day surfacing during rainy season as the earth is being pushed upwards. Finally there’s a big memorial pagoda to the victims, but as a gruesome twist, the pagoda has a big several story high display case full of actual skulls of the victims. It is extremely morbid walking around these hundreds of skulls. It gives an entirely different appreciation for the massacre and horror that took place here, and in Cambodia in general.
The Killing Fields has a audio guide service, which I can only recommend. If you just walk around on your own it is hard to grasp the full gravity of the things that occured here, because the site is mostly just a field with a bunch of mounds and cavities from the various dug-up mass-graves and some remains of buildings, but if you don’t get the full explanation, including survivor stories, the history is lost.
The audio guide is however disturbing at times, and is likely to make you choke up a few times as you walk around listening the horrors. People were truly treated as insects.
The most horribly disturbing place in the Killing Fields is undoubtedly the “Killing Tree”, which is a big tree that was used to kill babies and young children, by grabbing that legs and forcefully smashing the heads into the tree over and over until the heads were completely smashed. Seeing the tree and listening to the descriptions is gut wrenching to on a whole other level. The tree is now used a memorial for the child victims of the genocide, and as so is entirely covered in colorful bracelets left in respect of the children.
With the audio guide, you can probably spend about 1,5-2 hours exploring this place, and it is highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Phnom Penh. It is uncomfortably sickening, but it is important you understand the trauma Cambodia carries, and its recent history, and for simple human compassion in general.
Tuol Sleng / S21 Secret prison
The next site related to the Khmer Rouge you can visit, might surprise you to learn is a secret torture prison, that is however located right in the middle of Phnom Penh, and wasn’t discovered until after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. This was possibly due to the previously mentioned forced urban exodus.
The history of Tuol Sleng is even more tragic in that the buildings used to be a highschool before the Khmer Rouge, but they took it and converted it into a nightmare factory. All the classrooms were cleared out and converted into prison cells and torture chambers.
It consists of three multi-story blocks, and you can visit mostly all of it. The first building consists entirely of torture chambers, in which each classroom contained 1 torture chamber. The chambers just contained 1 metal bed to which the prisoners were locked on to and left laying there for days on end, as mental torture while also being whipped, simulated-drowned and undergoing several other torture methods aimed at breaking them without killing them. This of course didn’t always succeed as the tortureres were rather careless, and several people died in deep agony here. The beds are still in the rooms, along with pictures on the walls of the dead prisoners as they were found upon liberation of the prison. There pictures are especially macabre. There’s also still bloodstains on the floors.
Another detail here, is that the air-conditioning openings in the walls that were made to make it possible to survive the cambodian summers for the highschool students, were entirely covered up, so the rooms would also be baking hot.
Tuol Sleng also provides a audio-guided tour that is again very much worth it. The audio guide is of high quality and provides a lot of gut-churning details that you would otherwise be ignorant of, and not grasping the full gravity of these rooms.
The second building contained the prison-cells. These prison cells were build improptu in the old class rooms, using wooden walls or bricks to build small cells that were very narrows and short. Some of them without any light entering them etc. The cells were built to maximize the number of prisoners that could be stored at any one time, and it would have been extremely cramped. Each cell is also equipped with chains that the prisoners were locked up with.
The facade of the building that has a outdoor hallway connecting the different stories of the building with staircases has also been covered up with barb-wise meshes to prevent any prisoners from jumping to their deaths. This happened once, when one prisoner managed to escape and found death to be better than the continued living under the Khmer Rouge. Many steps were taken to prevent the people from killing themselves.
This second building also has a big exhibition of photographs from the times, and huge displays of photos taken of prisoners upon entering S21. Many of the victims are extremely young, and it is heartbreaking to know the destiny they faced. This building left me the most emotionally affected, and I had to sit down a while afterwards. Tuol Sleng is not a pleasant place to be sure.
The final building is similar to the second building, and contains another exhibition with even more photos, and surviving prisoners interpreting their time in S21 through art that is now displayed, showcasing the horrors that occured here.
A full day can be used exploring the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng. It is a emotionally heavy day, and you will cry and feel sick to your stomach multiple times. But that is very much the reason to subject yourself to this. Evil and cruelty can only be understood when faced head-on. It is important to understand the suffering of countries and people to prevent these horrors from repeating in the future.