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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28

During a WhatsApp chat last week, a volunteer in my group highly recommended that I read “28: Stories of AIDS in Africa” by Stephanie Nolen. As others in the group talked about the book, those same recommendations were echoed. I had been planning to read it at some point. I figured now was a great time for it.

I’ll start by saying that the book was very worthy of all of the praise and recommendations. Nolen, a Canadian journalist, wrote the book while living in Johannesburg, South Africa as The Globe and Mail’s Africa Bureau Chief. She manages to highlight various political and cultural issues intermingled with the stories of 28 people affected by HIV in Africa. As I progressed through the book, I was very excited because the stories gave me a better understanding of the cultural landscape across sub-Saharan Africa in general, and Swaziland, in particular (two people’s stories were from Swaziland).

There’s the issue of a lack of women’s empowerment. Several stories, including one from Swaziland, were about married women who contracted the virus from their husbands. In many of these stories, the married woman wouldn’t dare ask her husband to use a condom. This remained true even if the wife suspected or knew that her husband had multiple sexual partners. To ask him to use a condom would be considered disrespectful, and she risked being thrown out of the home.

Then, there’s the issue of transactional sex. Some stories prominently featured people who engaged in transactional sex for a myriad of reasons. Lack of money. Lack of food. Lack of transportation. Lack of other employment opportunities. Lack of skills. I have heard stories during my short time here in Swaziland about double orphaned (meaning that both parents are deceased) pubescent girls who are in charge of looking after their younger siblings. Because these girls often lack things like food and money, they become prime targets for transactional sex, and subsequently are at higher risk of contracting HIV.

Reading this book at this time in my life presents a unique perspective. I am a part of the western world’s response to AIDS on the continent. While I know that there are people in DC and around the world living with HIV, it’s much more “in your face” here in Swaziland. A part of the Ministry of Education curriculum includes lessons of HIV awareness, prevention, testing and counselling. Free condoms are distributed around the country as a part of the “Got it? Get it.” campaign. Many NGOs operate in Swaziland with expressed purpose of reducing HIV incidence (new infections). I’m excited to, hopefully, be a part of the solution, and to continue learning.
Be kind to yourself.
Onward.