Phnom Penh: S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields

Before I get into the actual topic of this post, I have to say it has been a difficult post to write, and may be a difficult one to read. The atrocities that happened at S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields, and the relative recency of the Khmer Rouge regime, make visiting these museums a difficult, uncomfortable, harrowing, but important experience.

The Khmer Rouge, a communist group led by Pol Pot, came into power in 1975 following the Cambodian Civil War. Pol Pot and his cadres believed in “purifying” Cambodia, rebuilding it from scratch into a fully self-sufficient, agrarian community. They began by emptying the cities and forcibly relocating everyone, deliberately separating families in the process, to rural areas to farm. But the regime’s efforts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, and millions of Cambodians died from malnutrition, exhaustion from being made to work in impossible conditions, and treatable diseases where the Khmer Rouge regime had rejected established medicine. Not only that, but they arrested, tortured, and ultimately executed anybody who appeared to be educated, or who seemed to challenge the regime in any way. Wearing glasses or speaking foreign languages were examples of traits that could get somebody arrested and killed. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of 1.6 – 1.8 million people, between 21% and 24% of the population at the time.

There are two main sites in Phnom Penh that commemorate the Cambodian Genocide, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, once S-21 Prison, and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center a little bit outside of Phnom Penh, better known as the Killing Fields. We booked a round trip tour to both museums via our hotel, which I’m sure you can do from most hotels, guest houses and hostels. You can also arrange to get a tuk tuk. We spent about an hour and a half in each museum and felt that was a good amount of time to get the most out of the audio guides.

S-21 Prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum)

Once a secondary school, the complex of buildings that now form Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum became a prison when the people of Phnom Penh were relocated and the city was abandoned. Security Center 21, or S-21, was one of around 150 similar prisons across Cambodia used by the Khmer Rouge to imprison, interrogate, and torture people accused of crimes against the regime.

What struck me most was the level of process by which every prisoner was photographed, numbered and everything was logged. Rows of photographs of the victims line the classrooms of not just men, but women, children and babies. Prisoners were brought to S-21, photographed and logged, before being stripped of their clothes and belongings and chained in either a tiny brick cell, or in large groups. Each prisoner was forced to write lengthy “confessions” where they were ultimately tortured in all manner of horrendous ways until they admitted to whatever they had been accused of. The prisoners were also made to list any family, friends, or associates who would also then be brought to S-21. Throughout the museum are really harrowing photographs and artwork depicting the torture and suffering. The paintings were created by Vann Nath, one of only seven survivors of the prison where 18,000 died.

The museum itself has been well thought-through, with areas for people to sit outside in quiet as it is incredibly hard-hitting. I’m glad I had an audio guide, as there are very few signs in English and it provided a good background to the Khmer Rouge regime and explanations of what you see around the museum that you would otherwise miss. It also warns if something you’re about to see might be distressing, in which case you can change your route accordingly if you want.

The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Center)

Once there was no longer space for burials at S-21 Prison, a new location was found on the outskirts of Phnom Penh at Choeung Ek. Prisoners were told they were being sent to a new location, and arrived at Choeung Ek blindfolded. Here they were executed one by one and thrown into mass graves. At the height of the executions, 300 prisoners were being brought in each day. They were kept in darkness with loud revolutionary music playing and roaring engines masking the sounds of the killings so that those next in line wouldn’t panic and try to escape. Blunt weapons were used instead of bullets, not just to keep noise to a minimum, but because bullets were more expensive.

Some excavated mass graves have been marked, others are dips in the ground and there is a walkway so that the area isn’t disturbed. Bones still come to the surface of the ground during the rainy season and are collected regularly by staff. A Buddhist stupa containing over 5000 human skulls stands in the grounds today as a haunting monument and a call for peace.

Choeung Ek is now a beautiful memorial to those who lost their lives in the Killing Fields. The serene lake and fluttering butterflies are in stark contrast with the blindfolded darkness and deafening noise that victims would have experienced.

Once again I was glad of the audio guide as I walked around Cheoung Ek to give the detail that isn’t on the signs. The guides also have some examples of music that has been composed as a response to the genocide which I found very moving, particularly the unaccompanied song “Oh! Phnom Penh” which plays at the very end.

Needless to say these are not easy museums to visit – the sheer barbarity of the torture and killings is hard to stomach – but it’s important that the inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge regime is exposed. Many Cambodians today were alive at the time and experienced the regime, and many will have lost loved ones. There are a number of books and first-hand accounts that I’m planning to read to understand more about how Cambodia has suffered and ultimately is now recovering. One is First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung, and I also want to read Stay Alive My Son by Pin Yathay.

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