The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Tag: Cambodia, Destinations   
June 26, 2011   No Comments

Having read the harrowing but excellent book First They Killed My Father about the atrocities undertaken during the Khmer Rouge regime we felt compelled and committed to visit the sites that document that period of Cambodia’s recent history.

Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge executed or were directly responsible for the deaths of around 2 million Cambodians (and some foreigners) between 1975 to 1979 before the Vietnamese army fought in and liberated the starving people. Intellectuals, artists, politicians etc were systematically removed for not fitting in with the vision of an agrarian society. Those not immediately executed were marched to the countryside to work the land and educated in the doctrines of the new, ‘better’ society. Phnom Penh, the capital, was emptied and remained a ghost town for years. Happily, 30 years later we found it to be very much a buzzing and thriving city.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields in outer Phnom Penh – just one of the killing fields that blanket the whole country – is twinned with the S21 prison in central Phnom Penh. Captives where first tortured and locked up in horrendous conditions at S21 before being blind-folded and transported here, led to the edge of a pit and murdered. Around 17,000 people were processed through S21 before perishing at The Killing Fields.

There is a very moving and majestic monument that contains skulls, bones and clothes from some of the victims, in clear glass boxes, 17 giant shelves high. The surrounding fields have countless pits excavated (with some yet to be exhumed) used as mass graves for the victims – walking amongst them is a very sobering experience, knowing how many people perished there and in such a systematic way. Babies and small children where held by the feet and hit against a tree before being thrown into a pit. A small museum and a short film help to present more information but it’s hard to immerse yourself in any more details.

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

The pits of the killing fields, outside Phnom Penh

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

The majestic monument at the killing fields. Just visible through the glass are the shelves displaying some 8,000 victims bones.

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Truck stop sign at the killing fields

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Detention centre sign at the killing fields

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Storage room sign at the killing fields

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Chemical substances sign at the killing fields

S21 Prison – Tuol Sleng Centre

Onwards, to the equally disturbing S21 Prison, in the suburbs of Phnom Penh city. The former high school is where victims were held before being transferred to the Killing Fields to be executed, even though they were often told they were being transferred to other prisons or holding areas. Only 12 people survived this place. We saw inside tiny brick cells in which blood remains on the floor from wounds inflicted thirty years before. We saw unspeakable instruments of torture and pictures showing how they were used. Seeing the harrowing pictures, it really makes you wonder how human beings can inflict such horrific pain on one another.

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Illustration of the deplorable torture methods - in this case, strung up with hands behind the back, the victim passes out and is revived by submersion in fetid, foul water. Some of the methods carried out at S21, however, are beyond description.

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

The actual gallows and water vessels used for the above illustration. In the background are the graves of the last few victims who were killed as the Khmer Rouge fled the prison with the Vietnamese closing in.

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

The cells go on and on - there are many blocks, each with several floors.

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Example of a make-shift cell at S21 prison. The victim was chained to the floor and just a curtain covered the entrance. No noise at all was tolerated. The box is for the prisoner's waste.

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Illustration of how the victims were manacled in groups, with vast numbers per room - the rooms were all previously school classrooms.

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

The actual manacles used, as illustrated above. (On the floor note the lines that originally marked out the cells of the seperated prisoners.)

 The Killing Fields & S21 Prison

Virtually every inch of every room at S21 is covered in boards like this showing the haunting faces of the victims. It's overwhelming.

While both sites are disturbing places to visit they are sensitively presented, with information carefully and respectfully displayed and an overriding theme of the need for humanity to learn from the past.



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