A little bit of Cambodian History – S21 and The Killing Fields

I’m not usually that emotional a guy and don’t tend to be affected by the typical “upsetting” things. However, in Phnom Penh, Security Prison 21 (S21) and The Killing Fields got to me, I was choked up and close to tears walking around. It’s just plain horrible and tugged on my heart strings like nothing else before.

I’m going to warn you now, this is not a nice blog post.

A short history lesson

Cambodia in the last century has been a turbulent place. To be brief, The French took over the country in the 1860’s and integrated it into French Indo China. WWII changed things slightly in that the French lost powers to the Japanese and then in 1945 Cambodia declared independence – this was short lived as the French regained control a few months later. In 1953, Independence was once again gained and the country continued this way for the next 20 years under a new Monarchy.

The 1960’s saw further destabilization due to the Vietnam War and opposition to the government. In March 1970 the monarchy was abolished during a military coup and the new government was forced to deal with not only the USA bombing of Vietcong troops but also the rise of Communist insurgents. In 1975, the insurgents seized control of the country and the Government collapsed – thus starts the rule of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.

As soon as Khmer Rouge took control, the genocide started immediately with the city dwellers forced to the countryside, intelligence was persecuted and thousands were killed in Pol Pot’s attempt to create his utopian country. This is where the former school, Security Prison 21 (S 21) and The Killing Fields come in…

Security Prison 21 – S21

Walk through the gates and you see a school. You see the playing fields, the 3 storey buildings in big U shape which house the classrooms that taught youngsters. You see grass, trees, shady benches and flowers. People mill about and nothing seems out of place. It looks serene and peaceful.

Step into the rooms though and it is a different story. You see a bed with an ammunition box and a random piece of metal lying there and it looks odd. There is no context, no understanding of what that actually is until you look up and the photo on the wall. The photo shows how the room was when the Vietnamese liberated the camp, the faded ink depicts a barely recognisable body strapped to the bed – the person had been killed just before the soldiers broke in.

Every room is like this. Every single room in that first building.

Step outside and you see some gallows and you read the sign – it is when you notice the pull up and dip bars to the left that you realise the gallows were originally gym equipment. The “gallows” were used by the Khmer Rouge to torture the prisoners until they confessed to their “crimes” by hanging them upside down and dunking their heads into the big urns when they lost consciousness.

It’s not exactly nice.

You do have to hand it to the rulers of the prison though – everyone they tortured and killed was photographed and details documented. Many of these pictures are now on display in the prison and it makes for a chilling display. Mugshot after mugshot after mugshot fill displays in room after room after room. Men and children are all there, some with nooses around their neck, some with chains. All look forlorn and accepting of their fate. After a while I became numb looking at all these images. How on earth can this happen?

The next building contains tiny brick cells where the prisoners were housed when not tortured, it’s surrounded in barbed wire to stop the prisoners committing suicide…

The last room you visit contains details of life after the Khmer Rouge were removed from power in 1978. Amazingly, it details how the “Western” world (the UN, USA etc) all refused to acknowledge the Vietnamese liberators and continued to support the Khmer Rouge. It details how that now, after 30 years the rulers of the prison and the Government are just coming to trial for war crimes. I didn’t have my glasses on so couldn’t read it all but that which I did astonished me – I had no idea that such atrocities’ were allowed to happen and we knew about it.

I felt ashamed.

Walk around S21 and there isn’t a single smiling face. There is no laughter. There is no happiness here. People look down at the ground and talk in hushed ones. It’s presented in such a raw and dignified way that it can’t fail to affect those who visit.

The Killing Fields

Whereas everything in Vietnam appeared to be a joke and my cynical mind worked overtime finding flaws in the presentation of the the information, here at the The Killing Fields the matter-of-fact audio tour explaining what you’re seeing is, just well, horrible. If S21 had made me feel ashamed and upset, The Killing Fields almost reduced me to tears. Even now, writing this blog post my eyes are welling up just thinking about the atrocities’ that occurred.

Just like S21 the scene unfolding in front of you is of sereneness and calm. The green grass, the shade giving trees, the flowers, the dirt tracks, the brilliant white and gold tower and fluttering flags all look inviting. It’s the audio tour that gives you the perspective and depresses even the happiest of minds.

It all starts off easy enough showing you a couple of poles and plaques representing the original sites of the processing and detention buildings, a tree whose sharp bark was used to kill the prisoners, the path the prisoners were led down… “Look to your right and you will see a mass grave ringed with flowering trees”.

Oh, that is not good.

“Look to your right and you can see the depressions of mass graves. Sometimes, bones and clothes lie on the surface – please don’t disturb these”.

Oh, that is really not good.

And it just continues. Mass grave after mass grave. Images of death force fed into your imagination through the headphones attached to your ears. Stories of survivors and liberators beg you for your attention and make you feel obligated to hear their story. Men speak of the horrors of their experience and the realities of the tortured lives they now lead. Women speak of the loss of their children. A man speaks of the sacrifice someone made to save him as a child.

It’s harrowing and depressing to the extreme.

We’re not even halfway through and we’re far from the worst part. The part that will reduce any emotional barriers you managed to build up to harden you from seeing the realities of The Killing Fields.

It’s the tree that gets you.

A simple tree. A simple, innocuous looking tree beside a mass grave. A simple, innocuous looking tree which was used to smash the skulls of the babies and children before they were tossed into the mass grave to the left.

The audio tour has an account from one of the camp liberators who explains that upon his discovery of the tree he could see brain matter and skull fragments embedded into the tree’s bark and couldn’t understand why until he saw the grave. Behind is another tree which was used to house speakers shouting out propaganda which was used to drown out the screams and cries of those meeting their end. To the left, under the roots lie rags which the deceased wore and have worked to the surface. Flanking each side are the impressions left from the excavation of mass graves.

It’s just a horrible, horrible thing to imagine and see.

Tears welled up behind my eyes and you could tell it was having the same affect on everyone around as faces were solemn, heads hung heavy as everyone looked at the ground, there was a eerie silence and no one talked. A few camera’s clicked as people lined up their shots and then one-by-one everyone moved slowly on to hear about the tower which dominates the area – the Buddhist Stupa which contains the skulls of nearly 9000 people who were killed on the site.

I walked out feeling slightly numb. I’m glad I went as it had a very strong emotional reaction in me but I can’t say I enjoyed single minute of my experiences there. I’ll finish this post the same way as the commentary does with a harrowing sentence: “Genocide has happened many times in history, in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia… and unfortunately it’s likely to happen again. Remember us when it does”.

Click here to load a map showing you the location of this post and images from the digitallery taken nearby.