NB: this post contains details of what occurred at the Killing Fields and S21 interrogation prison – you may well find some of it to be rather disturbing.
I think it’s fair to say that we both fell for Cambodia in quite a big way – the people are so warm & friendly and the food is excellent. From arriving in Siem Reap and experiencing the magic of Angkor Wat, to the paradise sands of Otres Beach and Koh Rong Samloem – we absolutely loved it. But perhaps the most memorable part of our time here was our stay in the capital city, Phnom Penh – a thriving city that’s growing and modernising fast.
However, the history of this city, indeed the whole country, is dominated by the Communist Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror from 1975 to 1979. In 1975 Cambodia had a population of eight million. In a mere four years, the Khmer Rouge had caused the deaths of up to three million. Approximately half of these deaths were caused by starvation and disease, as a direct result of Khmer Rouge government policies. The rest (approximately 1.4 million) were executed in a genocide masterminded by the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot.
When the Khmer Rouge seized power, they immediately emptied all the cities, telling the residents they were being moved a few kilometres away to keep them safe from US bombings. This was a complete lie – most of those people would never see their homes again. The real reason for the evacuation of the cities (Phnom Penh had a population of 2.5 million and was emptied in days) was to create a ‘classless rural society’, where everyone worked in the fields. To this end, money was abolished, books were burned, schools and even hospitals were closed.
In order to achieve their vision, the Khmer Rouge rounded up anyone with links to the former government; professionals (including doctors, teachers and lawyers); intellectuals (bizarrely including anyone who spoke a foreign language or wore glasses – thought to be caused by spending too much time reading); anyone from another ethnic group (eg, Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese); anyone belonging to a religion and any person suspected of being an ‘economic saboteur’ – usually former city dwellers who were thought to be guilty due to their lack of agricultural skills. There was only one fate for these people – the Killing Fields.
These crimes only came to light once the Pol Pot’s regime was toppled by the Vietnamese in 1979, although the Khmer Rouge continued insurgent attacks for decades afterwards. Indeed, it was only in 2006 that a genocide tribunal finally began to prosecute some of those responsible.
Nowadays, visitors to Phnom Penh are able to visit two of the main sites connected to the genocide: Tuol Sleng Prison (more famously known as S21) and Cheung Ek – the Killing Fields. We visited both on a sweltering day at the beginning of May – it was a truly sobering experience.
We began by taking a tuk-tuk (approx 18km) out to the Killing Fields (you can visit the sites in either order). On entry, you’re given an audio tour headset, which gives graphic and harrowing information on the site’s history. The Killing Fields were created by the Khmer Rouge as a death factory – they are essentially a collection of mass graves.I must say that the audio tour is excellent – so informative, although emotionally-draining as you listen to the stories of the survivors.
As we walked around the site, in the background we could hear the joyful cries of local children playing in their school playground – a brutal contrast to the words we were hearing in our headsets.
The Khmer Rouge looked for the most efficient and cheap way of dealing with their prisoners – they didn’t ‘waste’ money on using guns and bullets. Instead they would use knives, machetes, clubs – anything that would do the job cheaply. Perhaps the most striking example of their depravity is in the image below…
All around the site are shallow pits where the bodies were buried – most of these have been painstakingly excavated, but there are some areas where pieces of clothing, bones or teeth still come to the surface, particularly during the rainy season.
The audio tour details the horrors that went on at the site – torture and rape were daily occurrences, music was played over loud speakers to hide the cries of the victims and chemicals were poured over the bodies – to cover the stench and also to kill off any victims who were being buried alive…
At the end of the tour we visited the monument to the victims of the genocide:
The building is packed with level after level of the bones and skulls of the victims found at the site. You actually have to crane your neck to see up towards the top…
It’s truly a horrifying sight – most of the skulls show evidence of severe, brutal beatings. I can’t really find the words to describe it properly.
From here we went returned to central Phnom Penh and Tuol Sleng – the notorious, top secret S21 interrogation prison. By this time we already felt emotionally drained, but that was nothing compared to what was to come. S21, which was formerly a high school, is today exactly as it was at the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and is the most famous of over 150 such centres which existed in the country.
Approximately 20,000 people passed through its gates and it is thought that as little as 12 of these survived, mainly because they were thought to have useful skills. Again, the site offers a fascinating, extremely detailed and disturbing audio tour, allowing you to learn as much as possible about the site.
One of the first things we saw was the list of rules for inmates – number six gives a good indication of the brutal nature of this place…
We soon learnt what the prisoners faced during their time here. They were shackled all night in either tiny cells (where two prisoners would live), or in larger rooms where the prisoners were shackled head to foot. They slept on the bare stone floor in unbearably hot conditions. The toilet would be a small old ammunition box – if any prisoner made a mess while using it they’d be made to clean the floor by licking it. Their day would begin at 4.30am, when the prisoners would have to strip for inspection – mainly to see if they’d hidden any objects they might use to kill themselves.
Meals consisted of four small spoons of rice porridge twice a day and drinking water was severely restricted. Prisoners would be hosed down perhaps once per week, but some reports say that there was commonly weeks or even months between these opportunities to wash – skin diseases, lice and ringworm were rife. Talking was generally not permitted within the prison. Similarly, the prisoners could not really do anything without the permission of a guard. Any breach of the rules would be severely punished with beatings, torture or being made to eat human faeces or drink urine.
The purpose of the prison was to obtain confessions for whatever ‘crimes’ the inmates had been accused of. In order to do this, all of the inmates were routinely tortured: electrocution, beatings, hanging, suffocation, burning, knife wounds which then had insects stuffed into them, having fingernails pulled out and then alcohol poured onto the wound are just some of the Khmer Rouge’s techniques. The medics at the prison were untrained and their sole purpose was to keep prisoners alive for further interrogation. Particularly difficult inmates might be sent for medical experimentation – organs were removed without anaesthetic; some prisoners had the blood pumped from their body to see how long they’d survive. Some were even skinned alive to see how the body would react.
Much as the Nazis did in the concentration camps, all of this horror was meticulously recorded by the Khmer Rouge. On arrival prisoners were individually photographed and had to provide detailed descriptions of their life, all the way from birth up to the day they were arrested. The displays of the surviving photos from the prison are particularly haunting – I think it’s the eyes that have stayed with me. Some are dull and lifeless, some are pained, and some are wide with fear and horror.
It is thought that the vast majority of the confessions extracted at S21 were false – true life events mixed in with fictional accounts of spying for foreign spy agencies such as the KGB or CIA – organisations that most of the inmates had never heard of before. Once these confessions had been obtained, the prisoners were either killed on site or, more commonly, sent to the Killing Fields.
The amount of information you take in as you tour the site is overwhelming. The only other place I’ve visited that I could compare it to is Auschwitz. The scope of human cruelty is truly staggering – it seems inconceivable that such a madman as Pol Pot could rise to power in a country and I forlornly hope that it could not still happen today. As we left S21, we felt almost dazed by the experience as we emerged back onto the chaos of Phnom Penh’s streets. The Kingdom’s energy, warmth and vibrancy only underlines its resilience as it continues to heal from the wounds inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields and S21 are simply essential sights to visit if you find yourself in Cambodia – certainly something we’ll never, ever forget.