A Cambodian Lesson – S-21 and The Killing Fields

Everyone had told me you have to do these museums but it will be harrowing and you will want to cry. Everyone was right, it was harrowing and it crushed my heart but I learnt so much about this country in just a few hours.

Having watched ‘The Killing Fields’ movie the night before I was somewhat prepared for what I would see and was able to understand what I was being told a lot easier. I would highly recommend watching the film a few days before your visit to help prepare yourself and learn a little of the background history.

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Cheoung Ek Genocidal Centre – The Killing Fields

We headed out to the killing fields first to try and beat the heat. It was situated 15km from the city so we hired a tuk-tuk through our hostel to drive us out there. However I’m sure it would have been just as easy to walk out on the street and find one. The price will depend on where you want to go – we were only using the tuk-tuk for the killing fields but they can also take you to the S-21, a shooting range, the palace or anywhere else. They’ll all charge about the same amount so it is up to you to barter the cost down.

We paid a $6 admission each and with that received an audio headset and map. It is then set out so you follow the numbered stops around and listen to the audio at each stop. Following the layout will help to make sense of what you are seeing. We listened to everything on the tape; it was incredibly helpful and very well done.

Killing Fields

The first few stops are just signs of where buildings would have been such as: the office, the weapons storage, the chemical storage, the ‘people’ storage and where the trucks would have stopped. All of the buildings were taken apart in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were over turned and the locals came in taking everything of value. The stops after that are of mass graves, all sectioned off areas where they found hundreds of people – the largest of these pits had 450 bodies inside. There were other sunken holes in the earth which were pits of graves too. The people killed here were not shot because the Khmer Rouge didn’t want precious bullets wasted. Instead they were tortured, beaten and then butchered to death. Most often the victim would be blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs.

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Most people arrived here from the S-21 prison, however this is not the only killing field – over 300 have been found throughout Cambodia. We heard survivors’ stories on our audio guide and saw boxes of clothes, bones and skulls. All this evidence has been found in the ground – after a lot of rain even now more evidence surfaces from under the ground. It is collected every few months and preserved with the rest.

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The worst part was the ‘killing tree’: here babies were swung in to the tree, killing them on impact. The mother was made to watch this torture before they killed her and threw them all in to the pit together. They would play cultural music around the fields, along with the sound of a generator to mask the screams of those being killed. The killing was mostly done at night so the other prisoners didn’t see what was going on.

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The last stop is the Stupa, built to house all the remains of the bodies as per tradition for Buddhist people. It has 17 levels with all the bones being separated into categories and the skulls separated into age ranges. It is a beautiful building and has a lot of meaning behind it. We also visited the museum onsite and learnt more about the Khmer Rouge – they ruled Cambodia for another 12 years after they were overturned. The murderers represented the murdered for all that time.

It took us around three hours to slowly make our way around the killing fields. We then found our patient tuk-tuk drive and headed back to the city for a lunch break before the S-21 Prison.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – S-21 Prison

The prison was within walking distance from our guesthouse so we made our own way down – despite being hassled down every street to take a tuk-tuk. We paid $2 each for admission and made our way around using the signs. There were four different buildings open to the public, each used for a different purpose.

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Building A housed the interrogation rooms which had a small metal framed bed, toilet box and photograph of the torture in each room. ‘Special prisoners’ were also kept in these rooms, which were huge and still showed evidence of being a school beforehand.

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Building B had been turned in to a gallery full of photos of each prisoner as they documented everyone who came through the prison. Originally it was used the same as building A as interrogation rooms and to keep ‘special prisoners’. Both of these buildings would have had barbed wired covering the front of the building.

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Building C was left alone, meaning it looked just like it used to with the outside covered in barbed wire. Each room then had ten prison cells inside all tiny with the ground floor ones made out of brick, no doors but a chain to keep the prisoner tied up. Again they had a metal box in each cell for a toilet. The other levels had wooden prisons in them these did have doors, but very little light and seemed smaller than the prisons below.

Each building felt harrowing, like there was a life time of history hidden within these walls. In some cases there were markings on the walls which I could only imagine were fingers nails dragging along the walls as the prisoner tried to rebel against the person dragging them. Stains lined the floors especially in the prison cells, which I can only imagine were blood.

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By this point in the day I started to feel completely overwhelmed. I was feeling so horrified by it all I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I plodded on to the last building ‘D’ and quickly scanned each room with more photos, displays and survivor accounts but it was too much seeing the photos of the prisoners being tortured. These men were little more than a skeleton, blood covered and expressionless. I waited outside while my boyfriend finished looking around, I couldn’t take it anymore. When he was finished I practically dragged him out of the prison and marched on up the road until the prison was out of sight.

I felt completely overwhelmed by it all; there is so much more I learnt that day that I could share, however most of it is too horrible to put into words. The torture these people went through, the millions of people it affected and how recent it all happened is scary. I wish that more people could see and understand what Cambodia went through during this time but unless you have been there it is something you probably won’t know anything about. Even people alive in the seventies who lived in Europe or such, know very little about this horrendous time.

If you find yourself in Cambodia I urge you to go to both of these places and learn as much as you can. It will be harrowing and it will break your heart but let it because what you take away from it will be more than a broken heart. If you have the choice I would recommend splitting it over two days as taking it all in in one day was so difficult. 

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