A quote in the visitor book inside S21 prison reads ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. Whether or not this is true, there’s no denying that it’s important for tourists, as well as younger generations of Cambodians, to educate themselves about the Khmer Rouge regime in order to better understand the country’s recent history.
One of the best ways to do this is to take a tour of S21 and the killing fields from your accommodation in Phnom Penh. Half a day in a tuk tuk, including both sites shouldn’t cost more than about $16, plus a $3 entrance fee at each museum ($6 at the killing fields if you choose to take an audio guide).
A BRIEF HISTORY
In one of the most terrifying displays of genocide the world has ever seen, 3 million Cambodians (almost half the country’s population) lost their lives. Under the dictatorship of Pol Pot, anyone seen to be educated was exterminated. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, government officials, those who wore glasses, and even those with soft skin were brutally tortured and murdered in cold blood, their bodies discarded in mass graves.
It was on April 17, 1975 that the Communist Party of Kampuchea – more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge – took control of Cambodia. In just three days, all of the major cities were empty; the inhabitants stripped of their belongings and forced into manual labour.
Pol Pot described Cambodia’s peasants as the ‘old people’. He told them that city dwellers were responsible for their suffering and he promised them food, money and jobs in return for their loyalty to the regime. Some may have believed him, while others followed orders because they feared for their own lives.
Many people died of starvation or disease working 12-hour days with very little food. Then, from 1976 until 1978, the Khmer Rouge began torturing people to draw out false confessions before executing them.
In 1979, Pol Pot was finally overthrown. He fled to Thailand and the Khmer Rouge regrouped in the jungle. Worryingly, many countries still recognised them as the leading party of Cambodia for years afterwards. They had a seat at the United Nations until 1990 and even received financial aid. In 1997, Pol Pot was put under house arrest and, less than a year later, he died at the age of 73.
Now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, S21 prison was initially built as a high school. The literal translation of Tuol Sleng is ‘Hill of the Poisonous Trees’ and it was here that as many as 20,000 prisoners were held and tortured. In 1975, they were killed here too, but by late 1976 it became more efficient to transfer them 15 km to the Choeung Ek killing fields.
Although S21 is just one of around 150 execution centres across the country, it was the biggest in the Kampuchea Democratic. It has since worked towards regaining its status as a centre for education, albeit in a very different context. Today, the museum attracts about 250 visitors a day, including many Cambodians who are still searching for information about lost relatives.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, S21 was surrounded by a double wall of corrugated iron topped with barbed wire. Many of the classrooms were divided into tiny cells 2 by 0.8 m, while others were used for mass detention. Prisoners were shackled to the ground, rarely fed or showered, and frequently tortured. They were forced to sign false confessions, often stating they were spies for the KGB or CIA. One Khmer Rouge saying, ‘To dig up the grass, one must remove all of the roots’, refers to their tendancy to wipe out all family members along with the accused – a means of lessening the chance of someone seeking revenge.
Prisoners were prohibited from talking to one another, acting without prior authorisation from a guard or making any noise, and when a guard entered they had to lie down or they would be punished.
A lot of evidence proving the atrocities of the Pol Pot clique was found at S21, including various instruments of torture, lists of victims’ names, photographs, clothes, belongings, documents and dossiers.
Your tour of the prison begins with Building A, where the high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres accused of being traitors were detained. It now showcases grainy photographs of the last 14 victims massacred by prison guards before they fled invasion.
Outside Building A is a portico previously used by the high school for gym exercises, but turned into an instrument of hanging and torture.
Interrogation rooms are largely unchanged: one metal bed with shackles in each. Other buildings’ windows were covered in barbed wire to prevent the inhabitants from committing suicide by jumping.
Many of the rooms are now filled with hundreds of black and white photographs of each of the prisoners, while others display ‘confessions’, lists of those arrested or killed, instruments of torture, and testimonials from the seven survivors.
Two of the survivors – Mr Bou Meng and Mr Chhum May – were spared because of the skills they possessed in painting and mechanics. To this day, they can often be found at the museum, sharing their stories with visitors and selling their published autobiographies. They participate in a public discussion from 2:30 until 3:00 Monday to Sunday on the second floor of Building A.
THE KILLING FIELDS
Between 1976 and 1978, when S21 couldn’t cope with the sheer volume of prisoners who passed through, the Khmer Rouge began exporting people to the Choeung Ek killing fields just outside of Phnom Penh. Once a cemetery for the Chinese, this place became a mass burial ground for over 15,000 previous captives of S21. Pol Pot is known to have said ‘Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake’.
Prisoners were told they were being moved to a new home, which would help to placate them. They were blindfolded and transported at night by truck. Sometimes people were held until the next day in a wooden shed known as the ‘Dark and Gloomy Detention’.
Floodlights were turned on as the executions began, and a loudspeaker was used to drown out the screams of pain and terror with revolutionary music. Sometimes the women were raped. As bullets were expensive, blunt tools like hoes, crowbars, axes and bamboo sticks were used to beat the victims to death. Sometimes a plant with spines was used to slit their throats. Afterwards, Khmer Rouge soldiers would dig mass graves in preparation for the next shipment. DDT was spread on the bodies to finish the job if not everyone was dead, and to help cover up the smell of decay.
Choeung Ek comprises 129 mass graves over 6 acres of land. 8985 of approximately 20,000 corpses have now been exhumed, while others remain undisturbed and some are now underwater. The largest of these graves held 450 victims. Another was found with 166 headless victims thought to be Khmer Rouge soldiers who had defected. The most distressing grave of all is situated beside a tree that was used to bash in the skulls of babies and small children.
From time to time, pieces of bone, teeth and clothing are uncovered by the rain, and the centre staff collect them and keep them in protective boxes. Some say it’s as though the spirits of those who died won’t sit still.
In 1988, the government built a stupa as a memorial for those who died at Choeung Ek. The skulls and larger bones of the exhumed victims have been arranged on 17 levels and labelled according to the age, sex and cause of death of the victim. On May 20 each year, a commemoration ceremony takes place. Hundreds of monks and thousands of Cambodians visit the stupa and pay their respects. This used to be known as the day of anger, but now it is the day of remembrance.
Forty years after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, the people of Cambodia are still trying to piece back their lives. There has been such a focus on the future rather than the past that the genocide isn’t taught in Cambodian schools and a significant proportion of the younger generation are even skeptical that it occurred.
In the past decade, a tribunal was set up to bring some of the leading figures in the regime to justice. The former chief of S21 has been convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture, and is serving a life sentence along with two other prominent leaders of the regime who have both appealed their convictions. Sadly, most of those responsible have either died or were ruled mentally unfit to stand trial, meaning that for many victims, justice will never be served.