I toured S-21 and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It brought back many memories of touring Auschwitz in Poland. The horror of genocide still continues in our world.
I’ve heard about The Killing Fields, but didn’t know the details. I knew there was a movie, but haven’t seen it. I’ll be watching it when I return home ~ it is based on the experiences of two journalists: Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg. Dith Pran coined the phrase “The Killing Fields”.
The Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War when in 1975 they captured the Cambodian capital and overthrew the government of the Khmer Republic. Following their victory, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan renamed the country as Democratic Kampuchea and immediately set about forcibly evacuating the country’s major cities. The regime murdered hundreds of thousands of their perceived political opponents. Ultimately, the Cambodian genocide led to the deaths of 1.5 to 3 million people, around 25% of Cambodia’s population. ~ Wikipedia
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is the memorial site of the S-21 interrogation and detention center of the Khmer Rouge regime.
From the official website:
HISTORY OF THE MUSEUM
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is the memorial site of “Security Office 21” (S-21) of Democratic Kampuchea (also known as the Khmer Rouge regime) and located in what was then the abandoned city of Phnom Penh, whose citizens had been evacuated on 17. April 1975.
S-21 served as the central hub of a vast prison system throughout the country and was used throughout the period as a secret facility for the detention, interrogation, torture and extermination of those deemed “political enemies” of the regime. Due to a policy of guilt-by-association, at times whole families were detained at the center.
It was an audio tour that recounted the history, the events that took place in S-21 along with survivor stories. I was crying throughout it.
The narrator referred to us, the listener, as the Keeper of Memories a number of times. I like that phrase because we must all remember the atrocities of our human history.
The site has four main buildings, known as Building A, B, C and D. These buildings were once a school.
Building A holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims were discovered. It contained the metal bed frames where prisoners were shackled with leg irons. The bloodstains on the floor tiles will remain forever. I initially tried not to step on these brown spots, but in order to walk into the room and look at the bed and photograph I had to. In each room was an enlarged photograph of the prisoner who was found there when they were liberated. It was difficult to force your eyes to focus on what you were seeing in the photograph and impossible for your brain to comprehend what that person had endured before dying.
These 14 prisoners who were killed when the guards fled during liberation are buried on the grounds.
Building B holds galleries of photographs. One picture was of a man from New Zealand, Kerry Hamill, who was captured while sailing with friends John Dewhirst from Britain and Stuart Glass from Canada. Glass was killed outright and Dewhirst and Hamill died in the camp. Forced confessions were hundreds of pages long and Hamill’s “confession” contained details like he worked for the CIA and his superior was Colonel Sanders (KFC). His brother was on the audio talking about other parts of the confession where Kerry Hamill mentioned their mother Esther. I had to pause the brother talking a few times just to compose myself. It was so hard to listen to him. Hamill was burned alive.
Building C holds the rooms sub-divided into small cells for prisoners. Building D holds other memorabilia including instruments of torture.
The grounds are beautiful with fruit trees and many benches in the shade from the trees. A memorial is in the center courtyard.
On the way out, I met Chum Mey, one of the 7 adult survivors of the camp. I was already a blubbering mess, but listened to his story. He is now 89 years old. He took his sandal off and showed his big toe and recounted how they yanked out his toenail with a pair of pliers. He talked about how he saw his wife and son killed. He was tortured for 2 years. He offered to take a picture and it was an honour to sit beside him. He shook my hand even though he must have seen all the snot and tears I wiped off my face with mine.
The Killing Fields are many sites in Cambodia where people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is the site of a former orchard and mass grave about 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh.
The executed were buried in mass graves. In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using poison, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. Inside the Buddhist Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek, there is evidence of bayonets, knives, wooden clubs, hoes for farming and curved scythes being used to kill victims- with images of skulls, damaged by these implements, as evidence. In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Chankiri trees, and then were thrown into the pits alongside their parents. The rationale was “to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths.”
Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Some of the lower levels are opened during the day so that the skulls can be seen directly.
Tourists are encouraged by the Cambodian government to visit Choeung Ek. Apart from the stupa, there are pits from which the bodies were exhumed. Human bones still litter the site. ~ Wikipedia
Choeung Ek was an audio tour throughout the grounds.
Signs were erected explaining what was at that spot.
Mass graves are sectioned off and when there’s heavy rains human bones come to the surface. Instructions are not to touch them and get a member of staff.
The Stupa was at the end and I placed flowers at the entrance. You had to remove your shoes and hat to go inside and view the skulls that are in there. The skulls were arranged in groups according to the age they were identified as being when they were executed.
Today was another day that I will never forget.