Trigger Warning: The following post discusses the violence perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Some pictures are included at the end of the post.
I can’t remember when I first learned of the Khmer Rouge. I do remember several people telling me that I had to visit the genocide museum and the killing fields when I got to Cambodia. One guy suggested that visit the museum first to better understand the killing fields. I followed his advice.
Mixed into the capital city of Phnom Penh is what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also called S21. The site was originally a school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into one of their prisons in an effort to cleanse and rebuild Cambodia. All intellectuals and professionals were arrested. Even people with glasses were arrested. People who were suspected of not being loyal to the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, were arrested. Anyone and everyone was at risk of being arrested. They were then interrogated and tortured. It was suspected that the prisoners had ties to, or were assisting, the CIA or the KGB. After it was determined that they had no more useful information, they were killed.
At the museum, there are artifacts from when the facility was used as a prison. Some metal beds still have the shackles used to restrain prisoners. Next to the bed is a munitions box that was given to be used as a toilet. There are also pictures in some of the rooms from when they discovered the prison. They are pretty graphic. At some buildings, they put up barbed wire fencing to prevent prisoners from jumping to commit suicide. The regime wanted to maintain total control. They also had the practice of killing entire families, including children. The rationale was that they didn’t want anyone from that family to come back seeking revenge.
When S21 ran out of space to bury prisoners, they began taking prisoners outside of the city to kill them and bury them in mass graves. Because bullets were so expensive, they stopped using them and killed with whatever tools they had. Executions were conducted on the edge of the mass grave so that the prisoner could fall in. The regime sprayed toxic chemicals on the recently deceased to mask the smell and to kill anyone who wasn’t dead yet. There’s a tree close to the centre of the killing fields known as the killing tree. It was used to smash babies until they died. Although the regime was ousted in 1979, there are still bones and bone fragments being unearthed due to rain and shifting soil.
At both sites, they have some of the skulls of the deceased on display. Some have cracks or bullet holes. Some are missing portions. They also have various torture devices on display at the genocide museum. They are both really somber places. One point that stuck with me is that Cambodia lost about a quarter of its population during the Khmer Rouge regime. From eight million people, that’s two million gone. And it’s not ancient history. This was 40 years ago. That’s extremely sobering. Another fact that blew my mind: S21 and the killing fields are part of a much larger network. In other words, there were prisons all over Cambodia and there still are mass grave sites all over the country. Not all of the mass graves have been uncovered because of unknown locations or inaccessibility.
If you ever have the opportunity to go to these sites, definitely go (if it’s line with being kind to yourself).
Here are some pictures from both sites.
Be kind to yourself.