S21 and the Killing Fields

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.

The munitions box. To be used by the prisoners as a toilet.

One of the remaining headstones from the cemetery before it became the killing fields.

The killing tree. There’s a mass grave to the right of the tree.

One of the skulls on display at S21.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Monday in a Picture – Bereavement

Last Monday, I arrived at school like I always do. I noticed the head teacher talking to another teacher. It looked as though they were discussing important matters, so I acknowledged them and proceeded to lock up my bike. The head teacher approached me and told me that one of our students was killed in a car accident the previous Friday. The student was also a fellow teacher’s son.

In Swazi culture, it’s proper for the bereaved family to receive delegations from varied aspects of the deceased and their lives as people offer condolences. On Monday afternoon, we travelled, as a delegation of teachers, to the bereaved family’s homestead to offer condolences. This is done in one of the homes on the homestead that has been cleared out to receive guests. Songs were sung. Prayers were uttered. Tears were cried.

In rural eSwatini, the memorial services start either Friday or Saturday night with a night vigil. This past Saturday, several students and teachers travelled to the bereaved family’s homestead for the night vigil. There’s a very large tent set up for this occasion. Starting around 9 pm, the night vigil is like an extended church service/praise and worship session. There’s singing and dancing followed by sermon-like messages from people in attendance. It’s a joyous celebration. Around 3 am, there was a tea break. Hot tea and refreshments were served. After the break, there were more songs and prayers before speakers from various delegations offer condolences. The obituary was also read during this time. Singing and praying continued.

Around day break, services wrap up in the tent. Shortly after first light, there is a processional (behind the pallbearers) from the tent to family’s graveyard. This is usually on the homestead or relatively close. At the grave site, there are prayers before the body is lowered into the ground. The family then proceeds to fill the hole with the recently excavated dirt. After the hole is completely filled, there are prayers of thanks and benediction before people disperse. The above picture is of the processional to the grave site at first light.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.