S-21 and the Killing Fields

Posted from Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Victims of S-21

Victims of S-21

Day 12

Someone suggested I see the jail first. Then they said I should go to the Killing Fields. To be honest, these were only things I had heard of. I don’t know much about Cambodian history. I had heard of the Khmer Rouge, but to be fair I was born the year they took over the country and I’m quite certain the text books I read in school hadn’t been updated to include them. Plus, there are political issues and cultural issues that leave some of the international community divided on what actually happened in Cambodia. And I guess my head has been in the sand. I knew nothing. I cried today. More than once.

S-21 stands for security office 21. It’s now called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In 1975 it was opened at a high school in Phnom Penh on orders by Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, as a place to interrogate, torture and detain people suspected of opposing the Khmer regime.

S-21

S-21. The buildings just beyond the small buildings are also part of the complex.

This compound isn’t big. And in other regards it’s not very imposing or daunting. But what does get me is as I walk through the three storeys of the four main buildings of this former school is the detention cells. They have chains. Chains I can only assume were used to keep prisoners bound like livestock. And in the rooms where the cells have been removed are posters and placards and bones. Lots of bones. These are where I lost it. The faces of children. Dead. Women. Dead. Men. Some faceless. Dead. Only seven people are known to have escaped S-21 of the 20,000 who were brought there only to die. The people brought there were teachers and doctors and lawyers and monks and educated people. If your hands were too soft you were brought there. The Khmer Rouge destroyed 95 per cent of Cambodia’s Buddhist Temples. Few monks, very few, lived to see the regime fall.

A cell at S-21.

A cell at S-21.

I only needed an hour to walk around. My tuktuk driver was waiting for me outside. I’m sure he thought I was a crazy person, but here’s the thing. The people of Cambodia want us to know what happened. They want us to be educated.

People who served in the Khmer armies were more often than not forced to. They had no choice lest they be killed along with the three million other people thought to have perished at the hands of this fascist government. This fascist regime that had a seat at the U.N. To this date Khmer soldiers live amongst their neighbours – often known and so-named for having served the darkside – but many stand by the reasoning of having no choice other than death. I know many righteous people will claim they would’ve chosen death before doing such things, before clubbing children to death or torturing people, but I’m not sure what I would do if put in that position. I hope I never have to find out. I’m sorry these people had to learn this about themselves.

Uniforms worn by the Khmer Rouge.

Uniforms worn by the Khmer Rouge.

The detention center has changed little. They left it almost exactly the way it was when they found it, except they removed the dead and cleaned it some.

From S-21 my driver took me to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, better known as The Killing Fields. Along the way he stopped at a sidewalk cart and bought me a face-mask to protect me from the exhaust fumes and dust on the road. I’m convinced that having seen the horrors of their past these people are some of the most understanding and kindest I’ve encountered.

They give you a listening device, so the journey through S-21 is an audio tour. Needless to say, this dismal historical landmark was not as busy as the Angkor temples. No where near as busy, apart from the Chinese tour groups. But the thing about that was the site was once a cemetery for Chinese settlers, before the Khmer Rouge defiled it.

IMG_1000

Here, at the Killing Fields, prisoners were brought to be executed. This was the place they came to die. Some of the dead here were Khmer soldiers who were executed for not conforming – Cambodian citizens who said no. And the mass graves continue to this date to yield bone fragments and fabric pieces of the nearly 9,000 bodies they partially uncovered in this very small plot of land. There could be more. Mostly the bigger bones were removed from this mass grave.There are sites located all over this country – where 1 in 4 people who lived during this totalitarian time met death, either at the hands of soldiers or through starvation.

At many of the mass graves people leave bracelets as a sign to show their remembrance.

At many of the mass graves people leave bracelets as a sign to show their remembrance.

Every few months the staff collect bones and cloth that surfaces after the rains. These were piled atop a display case.

Every few months the staff collect bones and cloth that surfaces after the rains. These were piled atop a display case.

Probably the hardest thing to endure when visiting this site is this tree. When they found this site they wondered why there was hair and brain and skull fragments embedded in the tree.

Probably the hardest thing to endure when visiting this site is this tree. When they found this site they wondered why there was hair and brain and skull fragments embedded in the tree.

When the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979 the Cambodian people swore to never let anything like it happen again.

This was not meant to be a history lesson, and I’m sure by a few accounts I may be off. Like I said, many scholars are at odds at what happened during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, but what is evident is how it changed this country and this city. You can see it in people’s eyes. Many have seen horror. True horror. And now I backpack through their country because it’s cheap … I’m not sure how I feel about that.

One Response to S-21 and the Killing Fields

  1. What a precious piece of writing, Sheri…while reading it the thought you materialized in your last sentence was going through my mind. It is so easy and painless to be ignorant, but people with the heart and smile like yours, make up for the rest…
    Love,
    Dragana

    Dragana June 27, 2013 at 2:13 pm Reply

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