The Killing Fields & S-21

Thursday 17th October 2019

The Killing Fields & S-21, Cambodia


The Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975-1979, with a goal of turning the country into a communist agrarian utopia.

In reality they emptied the cities and evacuated millions of people to labour camps where they were starved and abused and claimed the lives of more than two million people.

These Cambodian people came from all walks of life, politicians, doctors, teachers, the elderly, children, and anyone else they perceived to be in opposition, all killed needlessly by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng or at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and other similar death camps.

Their policies were radical, attempting to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society comprised of collectivised farms.

As the genocide progressed, survival was determined by one’s ability to do work on the collective farms.

Buildings such as schools, pagodas and government properties were turned into prisons, stables, camps and granaries.

The killing fields were sites set up all over the country where the Khmer Rouge took people to be killed once they could no longer work, had “confessed” to their alleged crimes, or simply were just not seen as being useful anymore.

Can you believe there are over 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia.

During this black period under the Khmer Rouge policies, thousands more people died from physical abuse, exhaustion, starvation and diseases….it was extremely brutal.

Estimates bring the number of deaths to between 1.7 and 2.5 million people out of a total population of 8 million. Which means they wiped out a quarter of the population with little or no outcry from the international community!

This brutality was happening in my lifetime!!!

Clashes with Vietnam broke out in 1977 and on January 7th 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge and installing a socialist regime.

It wasn’t until the regime was overthrown that the atrocities that had been committed gained the focus of the international media.

Today many of the killing fields have been excavated to give the victims a proper burial but some are also inaccessible due to landmines.

Here at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek the bodies of seventeen thousand people were found buried in a mass grave.

It is the largest of the killing fields. Here people were taken for execution after enduring torture and interrogation at the S-21 prison, a former high school which we were going to visit later.

The Killing Fields has now been turned into a memorial site for visitors to learn about the genocide and pay their respects to the victims.

120 communal graves have been found here, of which 49 have been left untouched. Signs close to the grave sites indicate the number of people buried there.

A memorial Pavillion was erected in 1988 in memory of the people found at Choeung Ek.

The glass panals reveal some 8,000 skulls arranged accordingly to age and sex, a grim reminder of the horrors perpetuated by this regime. Also inside this are many different kinds of bones they had found all laid out together in sections.

These are horrific/graphic photo’s, I apologise, but the Cambodians want their story told, they want people to see what happened here for the very people in these photographs.

Although I certainly knew about Cambodia’s tragic past, I was unprepared for coming face to face with it.

We had hired a local guide named Tavern, aged 49. Tavern was exceptional, he had lived through and experienced at first hand what he was talking about.

He told us the history of this place and all about the Khmer Rouge but he also put it into perspective about how it had affected him personally.

Tavern was taken by the Khmer Rouge and separated from his family for four years, as was a lot of children. He was housed in a primary school which removed all education and was guarded by soldiers. The Khmer Rouge did not want anyone educated. At around 4 years old Tavern and the children were forced to work, his job was to go around the village picking up cow manure.

Tavern also told us about his father, a doctor in the local hospital. In order to stay alive his father could not admit to being a doctor as the Khmer Rouge saw all intellects as a threat, but Taverns father knew how to work the land so pretended he was a farmer so as not to be killed. Taverns father died 3 months after the liberation of Cambodia from malnourishment brought on by the hardships he endured.

Tavern also told us that his brother and 8 of his cousins were murdered by the Khmer Rouge and their bodies never found. He suspects they are all here somewhere in the killing fields yet to be found.

It was soul destroying. Tavern said he was embarrassed that his people done this but the story had to be told, people needed to hear this story for those that had died and so it could never happen again.

Being here with Tavern gave us a deep insight into the painful bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Tavern took us to a tree and told us that this tree was used to brutally murder babies and children against.

The area beside the tree was where all the children’s bodies had been found alongside naked bodies of women who had been raped then murdered.

The Khmer Rouge did not use bullets to kill these people as it was too costly. They used brutal force smacking heads and bodies against trees, or using instruments against the skull.

Another tree was shown to us which was used to hang a loudspeaker from, music was played to drown out the moaning victims as they were being executed.

Being in this ‘place of death’, at an epicentre of pure evil was haunting, your heart ached, its actually too painful to describe and it must never be forgetten what went on here. It was inhumane and barbaric.

Even till this day more clothes and bones come to the surface in heavy rains.

It was difficult leaving this place and moving on having witnessed so much devastation but we did.

We were now on our way to visit the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng.

This emprisoned as many as 17,000 men, women and children during the regimes four years in power.

Originally a school it was taken over by the regime in 1975 and was used as torture headquarters.

I felt a great deal of unease as we ventured through the front gate into the grounds. Grim reminders greet you, we saw the 12 graves where the corpses of the last remaining vicitms at Tuol Sleng were laid to rest.

It was said that when the Vietnam Army arrived here after the Khmer Rouge were defeated only 3 people were still alive.

The rooms are now empty apart from a couple of old iron beds in each room which had been used to torture vistims on. A photo in each of these room is evidence of the horror they endured….on that bed in that room!

The photo’s are horrific, the floors still stained.

Routine beatings, electric shocks, hangings, torture with hot metal instruments, suffocation with plastic bags were just some of the means of torture and killings.

Some of the tools used to torture

Thousands of photos have been taken of the victims and their eyes tell the story of such helplessness, it’s haunting and upsetting!

Skulls and bones have been collected and stored.

Barbed wire fencing still encloses the top balconies of the buildings which prevented prisoners from jumping to an early death to escape more torture.

You have to wonder how this could have happened and why it took so long before any intervention occurred. Again this was actually happening in my lifetime, its truly shocking.

We wandered through each area, witnessing and hearing about the tortures that took place.

When the Vietnamese broke in here they photographed each room as they found them with the prisoners in them and it is these pictures that are hung on the wall in each room as you enter through one by one. Standing in the room, seeing the photos is heartbreaking.

Block three contained single cells which had been built with brick to segregate each prisoner in the larger rooms.

This is the cell of Chum Mey one of the very few survivors from S-21

Tavern then hit us with something so special. Today here in S-21, two of the prisoners who were two of the lucky few not killed were here alive and well today and we would get to meet them.

The only reason these two men were not killed by the Khmer Rouge was because they were seen as being of some use.

It was Chum Mey’s skill as a mechanic that saved him, when after 12 days and nights of beatings and repeated electrocution, that he was plucked from among the other prisoners and put to work repairing the typewriters his torturers used to record the prisoners forced confessions.

Chum Mey escaped death, but his survival itself bewilders him “it was such a rare chance that I survived when so many people were killed there”. I think about it every night, how lucky I was to survive. Why did I survive?”

Chum Mey lost his whole family, his wife and four children.

Chum Mey, aged 83

Bou Meng was saved, after weeks of torture, because he was an artist. He was taken from a row of shackled prisoners and put to work painting portraits of Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, and he continued this work as others were tortured and killed, until the prison was hastily evacuated in the face of a Vietnamese invasion.

He survived but his wife, Ma Youen died at S-21.

Bou Meng, aged 79

When I set my eyes on both these men I felt so emotional and overwhelmed I could hardly speak to them.

They asked if I wanted a photo with them and I replied I would be honoured.

Both men want what happened here documented. They want people to come and see.

“The important thing is to document what happened here,” says Bou Meng, “I want people around the world to go home and tell their friends and family about the genocide of the Khmer people”.

There are no words to describe meeting these two heroic and humble men who have witnessed such brutality but I was honoured to have met them, will remember that moment forever and it was without a doubt the ultimate experience of our trip.

We bought both these men’s books, each telling their story – a percentage of their book money goes in to helping others affected by the genocide.

It was difficult leaving here, or leaving behind the memory of here. I wondered how those men felt coming back to a place where they had suffered and saw and heard so much pain, wondering when their time would come.

From here we went on to explore Psar Toul Tom Pong, also called the “Russian Market”, where anything and everything is for sale!

Later in the afternoon we took a boat cruise back on the Mekong River.

It was a nice opportunity to have a quiet moment to reflect on today’s experience which had been very hard hitting.

Along the way we also got to clearly see some of the poverty in Cambodia again sitting side by side with the wealth!

This area looked like a shanty town. Some people were living in the boats others had built shelter out of a variety of materials.

We watched this family at work on their boat. Dad had control of the fishing net, Mum was taking out the fish that had been caught and the boy was collecting the floats.

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