Number 3 – See the Killing Fields (3 of Clubs) – 12th February 2017
This one was a hard one. The Killing fields was one of the first things on my list, and having already visited both Dachau and Auschwitz in the past I thought I would be prepared for this. I wasn’t. I’m sad to say that I didn’t really know much about the Khmer Rouge, or about Pol Pot’s reign and what happened at the Killing fields apart from the obvious. It’s a travesty that these sorts of things aren’t taught in schools; at least in England we were never taught about this during high school. For me, this was one of the main reasons for wanting to visit; I wanted to educate myself on the atrocities that took place, and in my opinion it is our duty to remember the victims, to visit these places to remind ourselves of the past and to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. What follows is an account of my visit to both the Killing fields and S-21, and also a bit of a history of how they came to be. If you already know the history, feel free to skip this part, and please don’t expect me to cover everything; History was never my strong point!
Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge army from the beginning of the 1970s. Essentially they were a political party; Pot was a communist who believed that the future of Cambodia was in agriculture. He thought that farming alone would return his country to glory after the devastation of the Vietnam war. During this war, Vietnamese troops were steadily retreating into Cambodia, but the main problem was the US itself. During the Vietnam war, USA dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they dropped in the entirety of World War 2. The country was in turmoil, and in its darkest hour, it was easy for Pol Pot to gain power and take control of the country. He did this on 17th April 1975, when his troops took the capital city, Phnom Penh, under their control. At first, the Khmer Rouge were welcomed by the people, and there was almost no objection when just hours after taking the city, they ordered a mass evacuation. The reason, they said, was that the city was in imminent danger of more bombings; the evacuations would only be for a few days. This was a ruse. In actuality, Pot’s regime sought to send the entire country to work in the country, farming. His army was made up of uninformed, unintelligent people that were easily manipulated. He was scared of intellectuals and city people who held onto capitalist ideas; those who could oppose him. Instead of returning to their homes, the city people, or ‘17th April people’ were forced to work on farms in the country, or transferred to prisons, such as S-21 in Phnom Penh. The type of people that were arrested were people with degrees, health professionals, lecturers, people who spoke a different language, and even people who wore glasses. These people were sent to detention centres where they were tortured until they gave false confessions of being spies for the US or something similar. Then they were transferred to the Killing fields where they were executed. Sometimes they were forced to dig their own graves, and sometimes were even buried whilst still alive. This wasn’t the end of things though. The Khmer Rouge were a very paranoid regime; in order to ensure they wouldn’t be targeted for revenge, if one person was arrested and killed, so they would also execute their entire family. It was called death by kinship, and led to the murder of over 1 million women and children. Over the course of their 4 year reign, the Khmer Rouge executed over 3 million of its people, more than a quarter of the population of Cambodia. By the end the paranoia had developed so much that they even executed their own soldiers if they feared betrayal.
In 1979, the Vietnamese entered Cambodia and retook the city of Phnom Penh. Pol Pot amazingly wasn’t caught and fled towards the Thailand border with the remnants of his Khmer Rouge army. He remained there for 20 years, during which time many western countries, including I’m sad to say the UK, still recognised Pol Pot as the official and rightful leader of Cambodia and provided financial aid. Brief history done.
I went to the Killing Fields with Adam, who I was still travelling with from Siem Reap. We jumped in a tuk-tuk, which for $16 took us to both the Killing fields and S-21. The entrance to the Killing fields was $6 including an audio tour, although the audio guides have space for two sets of headphones, so you could save money and share, which is what we did at S-21. Anyway, finances done, we headed in.
The first thing that hits you when you enter Choung Ek (the name of the Killing fields) is how serene and peaceful it is. Before becoming the site of so many deaths, Choung Ek was an orchard and upon entering you were lulled into that false sense of beauty. The first sight was the memorial stupor directly in front of us; the last stop on our audio tour. We began listening to the audio guide which gave information about the history (noted above) of the site we were standing on, and what happened here. Slowly but surely it guided us around, and I have to say, it is one of the best audio guides I have ever had. There were extra tracks where you could hear accounts from Cambodian survivors, it was in parts brutally honest, and overall gave a real sense of the horrors this place endured. As we walked around the site, the audio guide brought our attention to mass graves that were found, the fact that the Khmer rouge rarely used bullets because they were too loud and expensive, and even had a recording of the loud music and the generator that played every night in order to drown out the screams of those being executed. For many, that was the last sound they ever heard. It’s chilling to think that when the Vietnamese took over Phnom Penh, the discovery of Choung Ek was a complete surprise; nobody had known what was going on in Cambodia under Pol Pot’s reign, and he had being extremely clever about what information was released to the wider world. At one point he even invited a famous reporter into the country and arranged everything such that the reporter would go away and write a glowing report about how the horrors in Cambodia are grossly over exaggerated.
Whilst walking around there was an equal amount of sadness and anger within me; especially when, halfway around, the audio guide informed me that even after being overthrown, and the atrocities started coming to light, countries such as the US and the UK still recognised Pol Pot as Cambodia’s rightful leader. How this is possible I don’t understand, but large parts of my visit were spent both heartbroken and enraged at the same time. Shortly after here we came to a tree, nicknamed ‘the killing tree’. I had heard about this before, but being in its presence was just too much. The audio guide explained that because of the ‘death by kinship’ rule, many children and babies were also killed. At the killing tree, babies were held by their ankles, beaten to death against the tree, then thrown into a pit. Tears filled my eyes whilst listening to the accounts and being there, knowing what had happened there in such recent memory. How can humans be capable of such things?
The journey continued, and as I said earlier, the last stop was the memorial stupor. Inside were the skulls of over 9000 victims, along with evidence of how they died. Again, this was just too much and before long I had to leave and get back in the open.
I didn’t take many pictures whilst here; I felt extremely awkward and whilst I was there to remember, I’m pretty certain I am not going to need photos to remind me. I also felt it was necessary to truly be there, in that moment, rather than stuck behind a phone screen.
After we had recovered somewhat, we got back into the tuk-tuk and headed for S-21. The journey was very sombre, and after what felt like an eternity of not speaking, conversation turned to politics, and the parallels you can draw with how the world is now. Very deep.
We arrived at S-21, entrance $3 and we shared an audio guide for $3. S-21 was the detention centre where prisoners were held and tortured before being sent for execution. Before this, it was a high school in the city, and again felt very serene. Upon entering you were greeted by 14 white graves; these are the graves of the only people left at S-21 when the Vietnamese and Cambodians retook the city. They had been killed and cremated by the Khmer Rouge when the city was taken over; they had been careful not to use bullets as they were worried the sound might attract soldiers to their location. Again, S-21, and indeed the other detention centres were completely hidden from the outside world, nobody had any idea what had been going on there.
As we headed through the centre though, it became all too apparent. S-21 was a place where prisoners were tortured repeatedly, kept in the most abysmal conditions and dehumanised on a level that is almost unparalleled. The Khmer Rouge, and in particular the chief of S-21, Brother Duch, kept rigorous records of every individual that was held there, and developed advanced methods of torture. They perfected the art of causing severe and intense pain and injury without killing their victims in order to force them to falsely confess to crimes they had never committed. Cells were the size of a single bed, built from wood or fashioned from brick and the rules were extreme. There is a picture below, where you can read some of the things that were expected of prisoners. Whilst walking around, the audio guide reminded us of various slogans that the Khmer Rouge used to say, things like, ‘to keep you is no gain; to lose you is no loss’ and ‘to kill the weed, you must make sure you also kill the roots’ (with reference to death by kinship). There were endless photos adorning the walls of each building and as you weaved through, you truly began to get a sense of the scale of this genocide. S-21 was so named because it was the 21st such centre, and the numbers continued after this one. The worst part though, is that most of the people who died didn’t die at one of these centres, or at the Killing fields. At the start of his reign, Pol Pot ordered city people out into the country, in order to fulfil his vision of everybody working in farming. The problem with this? City people didn’t know how to farm; they didn’t have any of the skills necessary, and yet were forced to work long hours, where they would either get sick from starvation, exhaustion, or overheating. The idea was catastrophically flawed from the beginning, and as said earlier, within four years led to the death of over a quarter of the Cambodian population.
It is horrific to think that within our modern world, such atrocities are allowed to happen. It is worse still when you realise that this isn’t even the most recent of such events; Rwanda, Bosnia, Syria, these atrocities against humanity are going on right now. It is for this reason that I think places like this should and need to be visited; we have to educate ourselves in order to protect our world. Things like this should not ever happen and yet, even now, they are. Although it was an extremely difficult and emotional day, it is one that I am proud to have done, and I think if you are ever in Cambodia, you need to visit Choung Ek and S-21. We cannot allow this to happen again.