No visit to Cambodia would be complete without a visit to, and appreciation of, the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum (aka S-21) in Phnom Penh. It may seem unnecessary to do so, maybe even morbid, but as I was to find out it really gave me an appreciation of, and empathy for, the people and their spirit here in Cambodia.
Estimates vary but you wouldn’t be wrong working off fully one-third of the Cambodian population being exterminated during Pol Pot’s horrific reign from 1975 to 1979. It’s around two million people give or take a few hundred thousand. Most of the intellectual capital of Cambodia is included in this mind-numbing kill-fest. Artists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, businessmen all rounded up and wasted as part of a radical social redesign.
Known as The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, The Killing Fields at Phnom Phen is some fourteen kilometers outside of the city, as it was then, and is located on the site of a former Chinese graveyard. Some of the Chinese gravestones and graves are still visible. This particular Killing Fields is one of over three hundred throughout Cambodia, that is; over three hundred KNOWN Killing Fields.
The visit to the centre includes an audio tour that “walks” you through the horror that took place. Imagine walking around, in excess of, one hundred and twenty nine mass graves that contained more than eight thousand bodies while being narrated to by historians and survivors … cocooned by the earphones, directed by the audio tour from one horrific narrative to another, past filled-in mass graves where bone fragments, teeth and pieces of clothing still surface occasionally even after all these years.
The tour “walks” you past the detention centre, where new arrivals were processed and an audit preformed to ensure no-one had escaped during transit. Further along the narrative informs of the office where the executioner worked, recording the deaths and the chemical substances storage room which housed, mainly, DDT to spray on decomposing bodies. The audio narrates unemotionally of the killing methods; hammers, axes, farm implements, garrotes and machetes. No bullets were allowed to be used because of the cost. Killing was primitive and brutal.
I listen to stories of survivors; a mother talks of witnessing her infant son’s death, another relates being gang raped and shunned by her village once the regime collapsed. A survivor tells of being beaten when an infant, put to work, spared execution because an old man sacrificed himself instead and finally escape and relocation to America. He talks of his return to Cambodia, his heart filled with revenge and how he forgives and works instead with rehabilitating survivors and those touched by the purge.
There’s a mass grave from which one hundred and sixty six skeletons without skulls were exhumed. Evidently defectors and detractors of the Khmer Rouge they were tortured, beheaded and buried near a tree called “The Magic Tree” from which speakers hung blasting out patriotic songs and propaganda to drown out the noise of the screams of the victims “processed” here.
But the worst of all is the mass grave of women and children next to the “Killing Tree” against which executioners smashed babies’ skulls before dumping their lifeless limp bodies in the grave. And the narrative unfolds with the story of the man who discovered this killing field and tree and he describes finding pieces of bone and brain embedded in the tree bark. He describes the stench of rotting corpses and how some of the mass graves had actually burst open from the gasses escaping from the human remains below.
The mass grave containing the most bodies accounts for four hundred and fifty souls and it’s on the way to the final stop of the tour, the Memorial Stupa. This beautiful building, silent, serene and peaceful houses the recovered bones of the victims. The bones have been forensically analysed, classifed and sorted by race, gender and age group. Each floor of the Stupa reflects this disaggregation of bones. Outside the Stupa, joss sticks burn permanently and flowers adorn the entrance steps.
Despite the horror that took place, the The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre is now a peaceful place, sterile almost. With the benefit of the audio tour though, the visit comes alive and is very moving, an emotional black hole yet it invokes an immediate sense of respect for those who died here and those who look after it now.
The Killing Fields ought to be visited in conjunction with a visit to the Sleng Genocide Museum in central Phnom Penn. Officially known as Security Prison 21, or S-21 for short, during the Khmer Rouge reign it was previously the Tual Sleng Primary and High school.
The school, turned prison was used for detention, interrogation and torture to extract trumped-up “confessions”, which were methodically documented along with photographs of the victims. Victims that survived the interrogation and torture were sent to the Killing Fields for execution. It is estimated that twenty thousand prisoners processed through here and there are seven known survivors.
When the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in 1979 the Khmer Rouge abandoned Tual Sleng without covering their tracks or cleaning up. The liberators entered Block A of the school and discovered the tortured remains of fourteen victims, one of which was female, shackled to iron beds in individual classrooms on the bottom floor. These rooms have been left untouched save for the victims who are buried in graves outside the building and marked by simple white headstones. On the wall of each classroom is a photograph, taken at the time of the liberation, of each of the fourteen bodies the liberators found.
There are four blocks comprising the museum. Block A was used for interrogation and torture mostly. Block B housed prisoners crowded into classrooms while blocks C and D’s classrooms were bricked up to make up small single person cells.
Overseeing this people processing, torturing psycho-nightmare was a former mathematics school teacher by the name of Kang Keck lev, also known as Duch. Recently tried and sentenced, he was discovered when a journalist recognized him once Duch had merged back into civil society and recommenced teaching.
S-21 is graphic and horrific, overwhelming even. I couldn’t finish the tour despite meeting two of the survivors who remain tied to this place, walking its corridors and sidewalks, sharing their stories of survival.
Outside S-21 we plunge into a coffee shop to find some reprieve from the history and embrace the new. We’re attended to by a ten-year old girl called Phom. She is delightful, a hope for the future. Petite and engaging she addresses us in near perfect English, takes our order and a conversation ensues. She sells us scarves and bangles and when we try to negotiate a price she proposes a game of ching-chong-cha. The rules are simple, the first to win four times wins. If we lose we pay her $4 for the items, if she loses we get to pay $1. She wins, easily and in a blur of hand movements and chatter. A young boy comes up to us imploring us to buy from him too, claiming its not fair that we buy only from her. When we decline, Phom gives us two extra bangles for free and sashays off to sell to other clients. Smart girl, she represents the future of Cambodia. Beautiful, smart, hard-working people that endear themselves to me.