The day that we visited Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng S21 Prison will remain etched into our minds forever. It was the day that Tim and I, both unaware as to the true brutality of what Cambodia has gone through, learned about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed in their own country.
We knew while we were in Phnom Penh we wanted to visit S21 and the killing fields, so we hired a tuk tuk (US$15/day) and made our way first to Choeung Ek Killing Fields, followed by S21 Prison.
The Khmer Rouge
Lead by a man named Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for oppressing and committing genocide on their people between the years of 1975 – 1979. Between 2 – 3 million people died of starvation, disease, torture or were murdered. The population of Cambodia at this time was 8 million, which meant that 1 in 4 people died during these 4 years! Based on Maoist communism Pol Pot’s goal for the country was to become a self-sufficient state. His aim was to maximise the production of agriculture, which meant removing everyone from the cities and sending all citizens to work on farms. The calendar was reset to Year 0, relationships with foreign countries were severed and he refused to buy goods from other countries (except weapons and ammunition of course). Anyone who wore glasses, spoke another language or were highly educated were killed. Many people were tortured and killed as they were thought to be ‘enemies’. In fact one of Pol Pot’s infamous quotes was –
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.”
It is hard to fathom what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge unleashed on Cambodia and the effects are still being felt today.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
When we arrived at Choeung Ek the entrance gate was a buzz of activity. Tuk tuk drivers chatting to each other, couples and families talking among themselves, tickets and audio guides being distributed – it was a lovely sunny day and as we looked at the fields, they seemed so peaceful. It wasn’t until we started our audio guide and started to move around that the buzz was gone. The chatting was replaced with silent tears and looks of disbelief.
What was once an orchard, is now the mass grave of thousands of victims who were killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek and today at the memorial Buddhist stupa, 5,000 skulls are on display. There are remaining bone fragments in the dirt and articles of clothing are still being turned up today. When victims were murdered here, they were not executed by gun – they were beaten brutally over the head or their throats were slit, as bullets were too expensive.
The structures that once existed when the Khmer Rouge were in power are no longer there, but the audio guide is very informative and through words and your imagination you can try and piece together what happened. There is a part of the audio tour where your guide tells you to find a bench, sit down and listen. It is then that you hear stories from victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
As you move through the field of mass graves, there is one stop that is particularly hard – the killing tree. When these killing fields were discovered (and it’s important to remember that fields like this exist all over the country), brain and skull fragments, blood and hair were found on this tree. This tree was used to beat babies and children to death.
We finished our visit at Choeung Ek feeling sadness, anger and utter disbelief.
S21 Prison – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
S21 was a former high school that was converted into a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime and today is a museum that chronicles the genocide. Like Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng has a very informative audio tour that will guide you throughout the five building complex.
An estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng between 1975 – 1979. They were tortured with the intention of gaining a ‘confession’, as well as coerced to name family, friends and acquaintances who would then be imprisoned, tortured and killed. A vicious, evil cycle.
As you walk through the buildings you are met with faces. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs of victims hang on the walls. The Khmer Rouge kept a very detailed record of prisoners who came through and each one was photographed and made to write an autobiography about their lives up to that date.
Walking through the prison, you hear of the torture, starvation and hopelessness that the prisoners suffered. It is unimaginable. There are some very graphic paintings and photographs on display, as well as torture devices that were used.
The security regulations are on display at the former prison that read (note that the grammar errors are due to the Khmer to English translation):
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
There are only seven known survivors of Tuol Sleng.
We finished our visit emotionally and psychically exhausted. Our hearts ached for the victims and their families and we needed even more information to try and process what we had just learnt. Since our visit we have watched four documentaries that I can recommend if you would like to learn more: Year Zero: The Silent Death Of Cambodia, Brother Number One, Enemies of the People and S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.
In my opinion, a visit to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek is a must if you are visiting Cambodia. The effects of the Khmer Rouge regime are still very much felt today and attempting to understand this part of Cambodia’s history will allow you to piece together a picture of the current climate in the country.
Note: We suggest visiting Tuol Sleng first, followed by Cheong Ek. We believe this is the best way to comprehend the most information if visiting both in one day.