S21 & THE KILLING FIELDS OF PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

I’ve debated for some time whether I should publish this blog post or not.  It takes a look at some of the most evil things that happened in Cambodian history; some of the most evil things humans can do. I’ve decided to publish it, because every country has a history filled with both good and bad.  While it’s disturbing to learn about the violent acts, people need to know.  It’s also important to realize that a country is so much more than its dark history; it’s important to see the part of the country that has healed as well.

A dark piece of Cambodia’s history lies between 1975 – 1979 when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia.  They wanted to turn the country into a classless society and systematically tortured and killed 1.2-2 million people, approximately 25% of Cambodia’s population.  People were removed from their homes in the city and forced to work in the fields.  They tried to put an end to education and medicine.  They killed anyone who posed a threat to the regime. Today, the victims are remembered most often at S21, also known as Tuol Sleng, and Choeung Ek, the most notorious of Cambodia’s killing fields. 

While in Phnom Penh I visited both. Walking through S21 was eerie. The rooms where prisoners were tortured haven’t changed; a metal bedframe, shackles, and tools used for torture lie in the middle of the rooms. Blood stains some parts of the floor. It was disgusting to think the building was once a school.  The prisoners were kept in small cells – they looked like cattle holding areas.  They weren’t fed much because they’d be killed anyways.

Photographs weren’t allowed in most of S21 to respect those who were tortured there.  Today, leaders of the Khmer Rouge are being held responsible for the crimes they committed during the 1970s. 

Only seven prisoners are known to have survived after being brought to S21.  Bou Meng (below) was one of the seven prisoners to survive.  He was tortured for weeks, but his life was spared when the leaders at S21 were in need of an artist to paint scenes.  He lost his wife and children during the genocide.  Today, he speaks about his experience and shares his story in a book by Huy Vannak.  Bou Meng faced Kaing Guek Eav, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, during trial in 2008.  When I saw him, I never would have expected what he went through.  His smile was contagious.  I had heard that Cambodians forgive quickly, but he made it clear. 

From S21, we went to Choeung Ek – the Killing Fields – where life was once meaningless.  Audio tours are provided with the entry fee; talking even at a whisper is discouraged.  Today, it’s a place to pay respect to the lives that were lost there. Victims were shot, or simply pushed into mass graves.  Many children were also murdered.  The Khmer Rouge believed that “to dig up the grass one must remove the roots.” They were brutally murdered, as they were smashed against what is known as “the killing tree.” Today, prayer bracelets hang on the tree and on fences around the mass graves to pay respect to the lives that were lost in the killing fields.

To this day, when it rains bones continue to wash up.  Signs remind people to watch where they are stepping.

After visiting S21 and Choeung Ek I began to look around at the population more.  Compared to other countries, there are very few elderly in Cambodia as a result of the genocide.  Although the genocide is in the past, and many Cambodians have chosen to forgive those who took the lives of their families and neighbors, it will never be forgotten.