As morbid and depressing as it may seem going to visit the Killing Fields and S21 in Phnom Penh, they are two sites that bore witness to Cambodia’s bloody and not so distant past. To learn more about what happened to Cambodia during the three years, eight months and twenty days that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge ruled this country we felt that we should visit both these sites.
The Killing Fields were, before 1975, the site of an orchard and Chinese graveyard. Indeed when you go now the site at first glance does not give away much of its brutal past. There are still fruit trees from its orchard days, there is a peaceful lake at the back, everything is well maintained in the manner a public garden would be.
Look closer, however, and you will see a human tooth in the soil, scraps of clothing wrapped around a tree root, the ground is weirdly bumpy and uneven. Despite the excavations of the mass burial pits the ground is still giving up its secrets over 35 years after the horrific crimes committed here. Teams scour the grounds every few months to retrieve new bones and teeth that have surfaced from the shifting soil.
So what happened here exactly? The Killing Fields are where the prisoners from S21 were brought to be executed. The S21 site couldn’t cope with the volume of executions and burials so this site was chosen as an out-of-town option. Not that there was anyone still in the city, everyone had been sent to rural communes under Pol Pot’s incomprehensible plans to turn Cambodia into a rural Communist society.
To begin with people were executed on arrival one by one after meticulously being checked off the list to make sure no one had escaped on the journey to the Killing Fields. They were taken to the edge of the mass burial pit and killed by hand using whatever was available, be it a hoe, an ox cart axle, a bayonet or even the sharp edge of a sugar palm tree leaf to slit their throats. Bullets were considered expensive so were not wasted on the condemned. Their bodies were then pushed into the burial pit. Chemicals were then poured on them afterwards to suppress the stench. These chemicals also conveniently finished the job of any botched executions that may have happened.
As time went by the volume of prisoners increased so ‘the dark and gloomy place’ was built to hold them until they met their fate. Here they were held in the darkness inside a shed, shackled so they couldn’t move. To drown out the cries of those being murdered loud revolutionary music was played from speakers suspended in ‘the magic tree.’ This was to prevent unrest amongst those still waiting by stopping them from working out what was happening.
If all of this wasn’t horrific enough to learn about there was worse to come. A tree decorated with lots of woven bracelets had a sign next to it telling us this was where the babies were murdered. By bashing their skulls against the trunk. Yes, babies. Why? Because the Khmer Rouge when they murdered someone murdered their whole family. Again, why? Because they didn’t want anyone left who could avenge their death later. So everyone in the family, including young innocent babies who had no idea and wouldn’t have had the memories needed to avenge the deaths, were murdered. The Khmer Rouge were seriously sick in the heads.
At the end of the visit is the Memorial Stupa. Inside the skulls of thousands of victims have been preserved and are on display to serve as a reminder of what happened here. All the skulls have been forensically examined to find out the age, gender and, if possible, cause of death.
It was very sobering visiting the Killing Fields. The place is so peaceful and quiet now it is hard to visualise the brutalities that occurred here. The audio guide that is included with your ticket helps to paint the scene of what stood here only a few decades ago. What I find incomprehensible is not only how this has happened in the first place but why even today the human race is still intent on tearing itself apart with wars, subsequent genocides and terrorist acts. When will we ever learn?
To conclude our somber day we headed next to S21 to learn more about how these people had ended up in the Killing Fields in the first place.
S21 was one of the highest grades of prisons the Khmer Rouge operated. This was for their special, most high risk prisoners. The buildings of S21 were previously a high school built in the 1960’s. In the grounds there is still evidence of its past with gym equipment standing testament to its peaceful origins.
Originally the Khmer Rouge went after intellectuals and the middle classes in their pursuit to cleanse Cambodian society of anyone who was a risk to the revolutionary regime. Teachers, professors, anyone who could speak a foreign language, anyone who wore glasses. City dwellers especially were seen as a risk, although a lot of them died of starvation after being forced into the countryside to undertake farming with no guidance or training whatsoever… All this was conducted to implement Pol Pot’s vision of what Cambodian society should look like. Pol Pot, the ex-teacher who went to university in France. Just the kind of educated person with a middle class profession that the Khmer Rouge would want to eradicate if he wasn’t their leader. The hypocrisy of it is hard to understand.
As time went by the Khmer Rouge became more paranoid. There were stories in the museum of their own people who had been turned in due to the slightest whisper or hint of treachery. No one was safe.
There was also tales of westerners who had ended up in S21. I was unaware previously that any westerners had got caught up in the madness. David Lloyd Scott was an Australian musician who had inadvertently ended up in Cambodian waters on a sailing adventure around South East Asia with his friend. His 1970’s wavy hair and well fed face was in stark comparison with the thin and scared looking Cambodians whose faces we saw on the wall.
Eventually Scott came up with some crazy fabricated story 32 pages long about how he was recruited to the CIA by “Mr Magoo” and he named all his band mates back in Australia as accomplices. Presumably he had hoped this would stop the torture he was being subjected to. Instead this was his death warrant. It is believed, according to witness testimony, that he was taken into the street where a rubber tyre was put round him and he was set alight. Alive.
The crazy unbelievable story Scott came up with made me realise that all the Cambodian confessions, although not as colourful or relatable to my own culture, were probably a load of nonsense made up by frightened, exhausted people who just wanted the hell of the torture being carried out against them to stop.
When the Vietnamese army were approaching Phnom Penh the Khmer Rouge fled from S21 taking prisoners with them and killing 14 others in their cells. These last 14 victims are now buried in the grounds of S21 near the entrance. Some of the child prisoners survived by hiding in piles of clothes only emerging timidly once the Vietnamese arrived. The popular figure is that there were only 7 survivors of S21 although some scholars now argue it is 23 with a few hundred more who were in fact released over the years instead of being murdered. Either way, it’s not a very high survival rate of a place that processed thousands of people.
During our visit we found out that the UN didn’t recognise the government put in place by the Vietnamese. Instead they recognised the ousted Khmer Rouge as the official government, even giving them a seat at the UN!! I’m no expert in international politics and diplomacy, but how on earth did we allow and sanction this murderous organisations existence?! It doesn’t give me much hope about our world leaders…
We also found out how few people have been brought to justice for acts committed during this era. Only one member of the Khmer Rouge, who went by the alias Dutch and ran S21, has admitted any guilt or culpability. He was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment in the first round of trials.
There were four other defendants after Dutch due to stand trial. Of these, two have been sentenced to imprisonment, one was declared unfit to stand trial due to dementia and the other has died. And that is it. No one else is being pursed for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge era.
What about Pol Pot? He was finally over thrown as leader of the Khmer Rouge in 1997 and placed under house arrest. In April 1998 he died at home. He lived to be in his 70’s, got to spend time with his grandchildren, have the full life he denied so many millions of people.
If you have made it this far through my post, thank you for reading this. I know it’s not nice to see and I promise the next post will be on a much lighter note.