Today, we made the call to visit S21 and then The Killing Fields. Two places of cultural significance for all the wrong reasons.
S21 used to be a high school called Chao Ponhea Yat High School. The Khmer Rouge won the civil war in August 1975 and repurposed this place into a secret prison and interrogation centre called S21. Over the next 4 years, the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) would go on to cause the Cambodian Genocide accounting for anywhere between 1.5 million and 3 million deaths across the country. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, this place was preserved to keep the memory of those that passed through these walls as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.
Starting the audio tour (which I totally recommend), as you walk the grounds one of the first things that catches you is how innocuous the buildings and grounds look from the outside. Knowing its original purpose you can definitely imagine children playing outside on the play equipment and running through the grounds. It’s not until you move inside those old classrooms and see how the interior and also that same play equipment outside was repurposed for darker intent.
Walking through the first building, you discover rooms containing nothing but a rusty iron bed, confinement rods and blood stained floors. There are black and white pictures adorning the walls which display the horrifying things that those who discovered this place following the war found in these rooms on those same beds that remain there. Up to 20,000 people passed through these walls and only a handful survived.
One of the things that stuck with me particularly, was that during the audio tour they talked about how the Khmer Rouge had come into capital Phnom Penh after winning the war. Almost immediately they started to “reappropriate” land and homes for the state and “asked”/forcibly removed everyone, all 2-3 million of them, in the capital to the countryside. Why this stuck with me was because somewhere in the middle of that 2-3 million people that they “asked” to leave their homes and all their possessions were my family. They lived in a house right along the river, the rubble of which is still there. It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to hear about this tragic history and know that it’s not just history… it’s your family’s past. That the events described weren’t just events but events your immediate family and many others actually went through.
We then went on to the Choueng Ek Killing Fields which is about an hour out of town. Many people that were scheduled to be executed from S21 would be taken out here. What would be an offence that would land a person in prison? Wearing glasses, being bilingual, soft hands… these were all things that alluded to being educated. Being educated meant you would either question authority or had been possibly Western educated, making you a spy. If you were deemed an enemy than that meant your whole family were enemies, so scores of families were sent through together to S21 and would’ve ended up here.
To preserve bullets, executions could take place using any number of tools including poison, spades, cart axles, table legs, essentially anything that could cause grievous harm. There’s also the Killing Tree which was used by executioners to inflict significant head trauma resulting in death for small children and infants who were then tossed into the pits alongside their parents.
As you walk around, you can literally trip over bits of cloth that are still half buried here. Staff advise that after each rainy season, more of the past is uncovered. It’s hard to describe what its like to know your walking over a mass grave site, with an estimated 17,000 or more buried here, knowing that there were whole families executed here together… To know that this is only one out of a possible 20,000 sites out there where these executions occurred… its almost impossible to fathom.
It’s difficult to describe all the emotions and feelings that walking through a place like this brings up. It definitely leaves you asking a lot of questions about you, humanity and what our future holds. How can we get anywhere together in this world when this is how we treat each other? What good is there if we’re able to commit such atrocities and hurt to each other?
In such dark history, our answers can be found. If we have the capacity to cause such great harm to each other than on the flip side of that we have the same capacity if not more to treat each other with love, compassion and understanding.
If we are capable of doing such dark things together than we are equally capable of doing great things together.