Face to face with the killing fields and genocide.

The weird thing is, I’m writing up this post on Christmas Day, not that you will be able to tell that, as I’ll link the day to when I actually visited, so it comes in chronological order of my travels.  I have really struggled with what to write about this visit, which should be mandatory for anyone coming to Cambodia. It’s necessary sometimes to be made to face the past, however grim it looks. If we don’t learn from history, we are condemned to repeat it doesn’t the saying go?  Maybe we are condemned to repeat it anyway, we certainly live in troubling times.

The problem for me is that this is such very recent history. I vaguely remember Pol Pot and stories of genocide when I was a child, but not really knowing what that meant.  The more time I spend in Cambodia, the more complex this whole history becomes.  The strategic alliances formed between super-powers that meant it was in the interests of one power or another to recognise or not recognise the Khmer Rouge.  The selective blindness to what was going on, the poor people caught in the midst of a reign of terror and confusion unlike anything I can really imagine.  20% of the population wiped out within less than five years.  It isn’t even as simple as that, Pol Pot himself was educated and was a monk for a time, yet ‘intellectuals’ even those wearing glasses were wiped out.  Monks too annihilated for their parasitism on the poor.  The land was returned to Year Zero, and agricultural age, communities were compelled to grow a certain quota of rice per hectare, but this requirement took no account of local conditions. Spies were everywhere, fear was everywhere, paranoia, terror, knew no bounds.  Yet within that there was secrecy too.  Who really knew what was going on.  People disappeared, but as I understand it the military who tortured and killed them (often brutally beating to death or disembowelled to save the cost of bullets and demonstrate loyalty to the regime) were themselves child soldiers killed after just a couple of years before they were old enough to perhaps think for themselves or share what they had seen and done.  The Khmer Rouge dismantled much, but kept Angkor Wat to demonstrate to the outside world it was a civilised and beautiful country – the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace was similarly spared (though much looted).

The only fact of which I am absolutely certain is that I am woefully ignorant about Cambodian politics.  No person living today is untouched by the Khmer Rouge and that time of ‘civil war’.  If I see an older person I do not know if I see a survivor or a collaborator.  If a collaborator is that terminology even fair in a world which I cannot begin to imagine where some would do whatever they had to, in order to survive or protect those they loved.  I understand the current Prime Minister Hun Sen is/was associated in the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime.  People talk relatively freely (but not openly) about how bitterly they resent his rule. The crushing of demonstrators a few years ago when some garment workers were killed, the belief that the last election was a mockery.  He cannot have won as he claimed.  Yet the King is lauded.  Genuinely loved.  Yes, his father the King was in exile, but the new King is surely tainted too by the events of history. I  just can’t compute all that I’ve seen.  The more I see the more questions I have, and the more unlikely it is I will work out the truth – assuming there is a truth there to be found, there will be many versions of it I’m sure.

It’s pointless for me to try to give an account of the brutal history, I am no historian, and other accounts such as the Lonely Planet guide to the History of Cambodia will be more reliable and robust.  I can only give a subjective response to what I saw, and encourage others to also visit these places and continue to bear witness to this raw and recent history.  It should not be forgotten. Cambodia is an extraordinary place, but it has a brutal past, from which it has yet to recover.  People today lost whole generations, teachers, academics, doctors all gone and with it a lot of knowledge.  Some people who are poorly educated lacked opportunities to access education because teachers and engineers – everyone who might have taught them had been wiped out.   Families were fractured and dismantled.  Throughout my travels in Cambodia, which are fairly minimal in the grand scheme of things, I am constantly brought up short by some echo from the past. The picture on a wall of grandparents who I was told were killed by the Khmer Rouge; the school building opposite our CWF school premises which has architecture identical to that of the school turned into a torture and interrogation centre S-21, by the regime. The teacher we met on an Island home stay, who was working on the island when the regime took hold and was never able to return home again, save once, to find everything gone.  Whatever ails me, I will never have to weather the storms that so many people here somehow endured.  The stories I heard, and the briefest glimpse into the grim past of Cambodia I found profoundly disturbing.  It hurts to look such cruelty in the face, but to turn away would be far worse.  Yes, it feels weird to visit ‘tourist attractions’ based around torture and killing, but how else are we to begin to understand what happened.

One particularly unsettling ‘fact’ for me, is that many guides I met stated that there is a deliberate attempt to prevent Cambodian people from learning about their own history. This was variously described to me, but the essence was that it is not in the interests of the current prime minister a) to have the past scrutinised because of his own association with the regime and b) the idea that Cambodians killed each other in a civil war is also a dangerous notion.   It is probably no coincidence that the guides who told me that they only found out the history themselves when they moved to cities were both from rural areas.  I’ve since queried other Cambodians about this and they say ‘of course’ they have learned about their past.  Probably the truth is somewhere in between.  Maybe only those who have been in education beyond a certain age learn this.  I do believe the guide though who told me he learned about the Nazis at school but not the Khmer Rouge, and educated himself about the regime in later life.  He too felt that his own history was withheld from him because for the current regime the idea of allowing the notion that civil war is possible, that Cambodian people might kill each other is far too dangerous to disseminate.  I suppose this is one of those things you cannot ever really know as an outsider.  Inevitably I will be only a spectator whilst on my brief sojourn in Cambodia.  But if you come, do try to find out for yourself what local people have to say about this and other topics.

I can only say that what I saw at the Killing Fields and at S-21 put a whole new meaning on survivor guilt.  We went first to the Killing Fields and then to S-21 – the school which became a torture and interrogation centre for the Khmer Rouge.  A useful summary of the history is on this BBC website Cambodian Khmer Rouge history.  OUr guide was keen to get us to the S-21 site in time to meet with one of the very few to make it out alive.  This is possibly the most surreal and strangest encounter of my life.  What do you say to someone who endured weeks of torture so horrific I struggled even to listen to the accounts or look at the pictures of the people who died there.  Still, I’m jumping ahead..

So on the air-con coach out to the killing fields, our guide told us lots of history.  I’m ashamed to say it becomes white noise after a while.  It’s not that I don’t want to understand, I really do, but there is so much to take in.  I did recall that the guide told us his parents wanted a girl when his mother was pregnant with him and were disappointed when he arrived.  He therefore has a name which is usually female.  Boys are expensive as their parents will  have to pay a dowry and for lavish weddings in the future, they are no asset to a poor rural family.

So, we arrive at the Killing fields.  The basic facts about these are as follows (thanks Lonely Planet)

Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek. It is a peaceful place today, where visitors can learn of the horrors that unfolded here decades ago.

The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in this one-time longan orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits. More than 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988.

Immediately the impression is surreal.  There are signs requesting ‘No trampling of the mass graves.’  The site itself is tranquil and beautiful in a way, but what a history.  I was unprepared for how horrible it was really.

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Recent rains have brought new bones and teeth to the surface again as they do every year.  It is really hard to process the vast numbers of people who were killed here, and the brutality with which they were murdered.  Weirdly, it is the glimpse of a human tooth, still attached to a bit of jaw protruding from the earth that brings it home more than the towering piles of skulls carefully stacked one on top of the other.  Fragments of cloth that elsewhere might be regarded as rubbish, here are bits of clothing from the dead, emerging from the red earth as the rains fall.  It is truly chilling.

We were told this site was chosen as a site of execution because it was an old chinese graveyard and locals believing in ghosts avoided it.  It was isolated, so to that extent perhaps people didn’t know what was happening here, despite the truck loads of people being taken here who never came back.

Even innocent things take on a new shade in this context.  We were shown a particular tree that has bark which can make particularly sharp blades which were used to slit people’s throats or slit from neck to groin, many victims were disemboweled bleeding to death.  Slaughter on such a scale required a  method cheaper than bullets and also bullets would draw attention to what was happening.

I hadn’t understood before that it was often child soldiers who carried out this torture and killing.  The systematic and planned extent of cruelty is beyond imagining really.  Except it isn’t, because someone imagined it and made it so.  We know that children were killed in front of mothers, their brains dashed against a particular killing tree,  before they the mothers were themselves tortured and killed – naked, so their clothes could be recycled and used for other prisoners still at the torture centre S-21.

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The baby killing tree is signed and labelled, necessary to understand what happened but it also feels strange to have such things pointed out.  I am not superstitious, I am an atheist, but the horrors perpetrated here seem somehow tangible.  Around about there are many friendship bracelets and money offerings, to try to help the dead find peace.


It was here we were told the shocking news that this history is not taught in Cambodia schools.  OUt guide had learned about Nazi germany but not his own history.  He believes it is because current prime minister must have been involved in Khmer rouge.  Certainly later we saw a photo of the wife of the then king, who is still alive and was photographed with Pol Pot (saw her cut out of photo at genocide museum later) it is a history that is too close to home for comfort for the current regime.

There was a huge cricket being eaten alongside part of a human jaw.  It is extraordinary to see, but also chickens, nonchalantly browsing around and scratching the earth as chickens do in a weird juxtaposition of horror and the common place.

There were so very many killed here, thousands upon thousands .  There was a mass grave for soldiers too – also slaughtered after a year or so as they might be harder to manipulate if allowed to grow old.  They looked 13 or 14 years old in pictures we saw later.  Many bodies in their graves had no heads, they were removed to display as warning to others who might be tempted to create trouble.  I can’t really describe all I saw, and in some ways what you see is pretty little, it needs the stories that go alongside to make sense of it all.  There is an audio tour you can do, and graphic signage too.

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In the centre of the site is a tower, containing a wall of skulls, showing evidence of mutilation so hard to put into words.  I knew about the killing, I knew about the genocide, I didn’t know how much effort went into being as cruel as possible.  I didn’t know about the implications of cannibalising of the dead (disemboweled so you could take out the liver was the suggestion) and nor did I know about the child soldiers, the systematized rape, the deliberate smashing of children’s skulls against a tree in front of their mothers – horrific war crimes, many of which afflict the world still.  We must never doubt what people are capable of.  unbelievable as witness testimonies may seem to be, the awful fact is that they speak the truth.  If something sounds so bad it can’t be possible, it probably is, why otherwise would people speak of it.  As I’ve said before though, it was still the single tooth protruding from the ground that was to me more shocking in a way, because it was possible to relate to.  Skulls piled high are just surreal.  As are piles of broken arm bones still with wire wrapped round them where the prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs.

It was hardly surprising we clambered back onto our bus somewhat subdued.  Next stop the genocide museum at S-21.  Joy on joy, not.

If it is possible to imagine, the genocide museum was worse.  And not only because pokemon is prohibited on the site. (No really, do you need a sign to tell people that, it beggars belief).


S-21 is the site of a school but this was no longer needed for its original purpose as the Khmer Rouge regime returned to year zero, an agrarian society of agricultural labourers.  According to the Lonely Planet website the basic facts are these:

In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21); it soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. S-21 has been turned into the Tuol Sleng Museum, which serves as a testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. The museum displays include room after room of harrowing B&W photographs; virtually all of the men, women and children pictured were later killed. You can tell which year a picture was taken by the style of number-board that appears on the prisoner’s chest. Several foreigners from Australia, New Zealand and the USA were also held at S-21 before being murdered. It’s worth hiring a guide, as they can tell you the stories behind some of the people in the photographs. A new audio tour is also available, but was still being fine-tuned during our visit.

As the Khmer Rouge ‘revolution’ reached ever greater heights of insanity, it began devouring its own. Generations of torturers and executioners who worked here were in turn killed by those who took their places. During early 1977, when the party purges of Eastern Zone cadres were getting under way, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day.

The school was a place of extreme torture,  as the Vietnamese came in to liberate the city, the departing Khmer rouge killed remaining prisoners but miraculous some 7 men survived and touchingly 5 children (two brothers, the eldest of whom hid them all).  When the army came to release them these boys didn’t want to leave as they had been promised by their mother she would return for them so they should stay there and wait if separated..    Three days after the Khmer Rouge departed, a journalist with the Vietnamese army saw the barbed wire and smelt the stench of death at the school site and went in.  They found the bodies of those most recently killed, photos are on display in situ, there is literally still blood on the floor of the cells.  Many of those killed were gutted.  Important people were in more spacious, VIP cells, but were brutally tortured to make them confess to unknown crimes, collaboration.  They were beaten with wire and bamboo spikes revived by dunking in ‘dirty water’ from the guards latrines.  Occupants of the cells had to lick their floors clean and they would have been awash with urine  and worse. Guards ate the livers of those they killed.  YOu aren’t allowed to take photos at much of the site, and you can’t take photos of the photos either, but they are all there, the victims staring back at you.  Guards wanted to photograph the dead to evidence to their superiors how brutal they were as proof of their loyalty.  You see pictures of people who have had acid poured into their noses whilst still alive.  Do you want to even imagine that?

Even school gym equipment was turned into torture devices.  Gallows, and drinking water urns were filled with ‘dirty water’ to revive prisoners so torture could resume all over again.

Women in separate block were raped, toe nails removed.  The women were in tiny hot segregated cells, with limited water, made to stand always and not allowed to communicate with other prisoners.  They were repeatedly raped, this and torture for interrogation being the only reason they were removed from their cells.  The guards put wire mesh across the balconies to prevent women being escorted to shower pre rape or torture from jumping in the hope of a speedier death.  The real horror for me is how this building still looks like a school.  What should have been a place of education and hope turned into a place of horror and death.

Of course on ‘confessing’ to crimes,the  next step was the killing fields in any event.  It was just a matter of time, it was futile to hold out, if you did, you would probably just betray more and more people, and who could blame you for doing so.  I don’t know how people survived as long as they did in stifling heat, with little water and no food to speak of.  Many succumbed to illness and skin lesions, there was no hope here.  The stories are graphic, and the photos endless.  It seems they documented some of dead to show-off how well they were carrying out their directive to torture and kill to superiors.  The photos of the soldiers show children – boys and girls with uniforms from Chairman Mao and the cultural revolution.  Not similar to, but identical to.

The prisoners also stare back at you, photographed as they were on arrival.  There are also photos of people doing compulsory labour. There is more than you can take in on one visit, though whether I or you would want to make a return one  I really doubt.  In one of the classrooms subdivided into prison blocks 16 tiny cells had been created, literally walling in the women in minute spaces, there is still blood on the floor.

Bizarrely one of the seven men who survive was there you could meet him ask questions and buy his book.  It was really strange.  What can you say to someone who survived all this now at the age of 85?  He did seem really jolly, I was still shell-shocked, but still felt some pressure to buy his book at $10 because it is important to hear his story. Having done so, he and his assistant insisted on having photos done, him beaming away with his arm round me, it was deeply uncomfortable  I said as such to mansplaining Amerian.  His take on it, but it is good that he has taken such a terrible experience and made something positive of it.  But how could he relive that daily?  You could forgive him for wanting to forget. On the other hand from the worst of times he has built a new life, travelled the world, spoken at conferences, probably got rich, who can begrudge him that. The worst thing imaginable has made him successful today.  It’s certainly morally complicated.  It is necessary and important that he bears witness.  He carries health problems today because of the brutal treatment he endured during his time at S-21.  It is good he tells his story, whether the razzamatazz of photo shoots is quite the way to go, I don’t know.  It was bizarre.  I honestly felt it would be rude and somehow a rejection of him and his experience not to go along with the photographing malarkey but I was still teared up and in shock from what I’d seen, yet what right do I have to be all emotional when he who had experienced it was just apparently pleased we were interested in his story.  And to think I felt guilty for getting a ballot place for the London Marathon.  His experience (or not) of survivor’s guilt is beyond anything I can imagine, and I have a worryingly vivid imagination, believe me!)  So I have this man’s book ‘Survivor – The Triumph of an Ordinary man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide’ Chum Mey.  I have yet to read it, it isn’t going to be jolly I fear.  I will do so, but when I feel safe.

I asked our guide if it made him sad to keep retelling these stories.   Of course, he said, especially when he demonstrates how the children were killed, held by their ankles and having their head bashed against a tree before being thrown in the air and spiked on sharpened bamboo and tossed in the grave whilst their helpless mother looked on.  Some children may have been a consequence of repeated rape.  Places like this play with your mind, but we must bear witness, I believe that I really do.

In my new role at CWF where I am a volunteer teacher, we look onto a primary school.  The architecture of that building is the same as that at S-21.  I think of it every day I’m here, I really do.  The primary school is the orange one with red roof, the S-21 torture centre white.

We gathered under a tree in the S-21 grounds.  As we were leaving, skies blackened and wind stirred up, a storm is coming, apt somehow.  It was a rather quiet ride back to our Phnom Penh hotel.  It is incredible what people are capable of, in terms of their brutality, but also the capacity of some to survive.  I can’t take hope from it though, I won’t romanticise this, a generation of talent wiped out, that legacy gone forever.  There is no upside to genocide, no silver lining here at all.

Happy Christmas.


2 responses to “Face to face with the killing fields and genocide.

  1. Pingback: Christmas Class Frolics… Jingle Bells Khmer Style! | Cambodia Calling·

  2. Pingback: Lest we forget. Revisiting Tuol Sleng Prison | Cambodia Calling·

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