The visit to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center a.k.a the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum a.k.a S 21 Prison was the most memorable part of this entire trip. I knew it would be bad, but it was worse than I ever expected. It wasn’t until I visited Cambodia that I knew much about the genocide that took place here from 1975-1979. This is the first and hopefully last genocide that has happened in my lifetime. The fact that it was Cambodians killing Cambodians made me shiver inside.
The Killing Fields and S 21 prison had such an impact on me because the Cambodian people have such a loving and kind hearted spirit unlike any other race I’ve encountered. I can’t imagine such atrocities happening to such a peaceful place. I felt this one personally because I have come in contact with so many in their homeland.
Originally S 21 prison was Chao Ponhea Yat High School. The buildings were surrounded by mango, coconut and papaya trees. After the communist Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, it was renamed S 21 prison. “S” for Santebal the Khmer meaning for “state security organization” and “21” the former walkie talkie number of the former prison chief. Cambodians were brought here blindfolded and forcefully made to confess to crimes and spying which were never committed.
Men, women, children and babies were sent here. Especially scholars and educated people of the community. Many of the victims of the S 21 prison were young. Among the locals, several foreigners (including 3 Americans) were interrogated, tortured and killed here. The ideology was to eliminate anyone who was educated and take Cambodia to the stone ages to “start over”. This included entire families. Most of the Khmer Rouge was made up of children who were brain washed into thinking the communist party was the right and only way. Some of the soldiers were younger than 14. Girls and boys were armed and making decisions on human lives. Most of the Khmer Rouge were Cambodians themselves.
Upon arrival, the prisoners were measured, numbered and photographed. Meticulous paperwork was filed on each person admitted. Women who were admitted with their small children were separated from them after the processing procedure. Never to see them again. Women’s hair was cut in a short bob before processing and they were put in black clothing. The men’s clothing was striped except shorts, and some were naked.
After a few days or hours, prisoners were tortured until they confessed to crimes and give names of people that may have been traitors to the Khmer Rouge. None of the things they confessed were ever investigated or true. They were doing this with the hope of saving their life. Waterboarding, beatings and electrocution were just a few methods used often of torture. One of the extreme methods was tying a prisoner’s wrist together and lifting them up by their arms behind them. The prisoner would hang there for hours until they passed out. After the prisoner passed out their heads were drowned in a large bowl of human waste until they regained consciousness. The structure and hooks still hang above the large bowls below at the prison.
Brick walls were knocked down to make doorways through the classrooms. In each classroom on the second and third levels, individual cells were made with brick and sometimes wood. The doorway into the cells were very narrow and the inside was about 5 feet long and 3 feet wide.
On the bottom levels were empty rooms with iron bars to shackle several people together. People were lined up laying down close together with their hands tied behind their backs and their feet shackled to an iron bar. Some were shackled to a bed by the arms and legs. Most of them were beaten and kicked throughout the day for various reasons like moving or trying to turn over. Barbed wire was installed on the outside of the buildings after a prisoner committed suicide by jumping from the top floor.
Up to 20,000 people passed through this prison. Killing people at the S 21 prison became a problem with the lack of space and the smell. The Khmer Rouge decided to take the prisoners to another location and “smash” them. Smashing meant death.
The Killing Fields were a short drive from the prison. Renamed Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, this was once a beautiful orchard growing longan trees and water melons. A Chinese cemetery was added to small part of the property long before the genocide. Today it is a mass grave of the victims from the genocide. 129 mass graves were found, 86 of which were excavated. 8,985 corpses were exhumed. The largest mass grave was a grave containing 450 corpses. Between 1975-1978, about 20,000 victims including diplomats, foreigners, intellectuals, officers, soldiers, farmers and especially children and women were murdered there. On January 7,1979, the mystery of the killing fields including Choeung Ek (S 21 Prison) were discovered.
After the prisoner signed the confession, they were taken to the Killing Fields. The killing fields were a short drive from Phnom Penh. Most of the people believed they were being transferred to another location or work camp. By lying to the prisoners, it insured they wouldn’t panic during the ride or be chaotic. Up to 70 people were loaded into a truck blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. When the truck arrived (usually after dark) they were led out blindfolded to their deaths. Many instruments were used to kill people such as back hoes, axes, sharp palm branches and metal poles. This was more cost effective than using bullets. Evidence of these barbaric beatings can be seen in the skull fractures.
Babies were killed by holding their feet and swinging them head first into a large tree. That tree is still standing today with ribbons and bracelets on it as a sign of prayer. After the victims were bludgeoned they were thrown into a mass grave to die.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is open land filled with large holes in the earth that haven’t grown over since the genocide. Bones and teeth are still resurfacing during rainy seasons. A large memorial has been built that houses skulls and bones. The memorial is divided into 17 levels. The bottom level are the clothing from the victims, then skulls and beyond sight are the larger bones found.
While waking around the killing fields, evidence is still showing through the ground of clothing items. There are two areas that have a fence and rooftop over the mass graves. Headless bodies of former Khmer Rouge soldiers lay in one of them, and the remains of 450 people lay in the other.
Kang Kek Iew (known as Duch) was the director of the S 21 prison.. Finally at 73 years old he was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture and sentenced to life in prison. His trail ended on July 26, 2010. Shocking everyone, he asked that he be released. That was rejected on February 3, 2012. As of today he is the only person is serving any jail time. Others have either passed away or went into hiding. The Cambodians former communist soldiers are still living in villages around Cambodia with the excuse “if I didn’t do what they said, I would die”. No crimes against humanity or murder charges have been filed on any of them. Some of the soldiers were children at the time, who would now be in their 40s and 50s. Cambodia has overcome this horrible atrocity, leaving 82% of the people here under 45 years old.