Nestled in and around the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh lay two of the most moving places that you will likely encounter on a journey through South East Asia. After hiring a tuk tuk for the day costing $20 we set off towards Tuol Sleng or, S.21 (Security office 21). S.21 was converted from a cluster of primary and high school buildings into a detention and killing center by Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Throughout the four year operation of the center it is believed up to 20,000 prisoners including men, women and children were detained and tortured. The four main blocks (A-D) were transformed from classrooms to cells of varying sizes ranging from large interrogation rooms to cells so thin that I could not even walk through without turning side on. What was once nice balconies and walkways on the buildings have been remodeled with barbed wire aimed to keep the prisoners in and stop them from committing suicide.
Strangely, S.21 feels peaceful today when walking in between the buildings in what would have been a playground. The blood and smell has been cleaned yet one cannot walk through the buildings, witnessing the artifacts on display telling the stories of the men, women and children who had the misfortune to spend time here. The Khmer Rouge’s lead ‘brothers’ ensured a high level of prisoner documentation, evidence of which can be seen in almost every room. Mugshot style photographs of prisoners line the walls in many of the rooms, putting a face to the stories and other information posted around the prison. Not only that but gruesome paintings, torture devices and stories of the seven souls to survive help to reconstruct an idea of the terrors that swept an entire nation only a single generation ago. A documentary also plays twice daily however timing was not on our side to view it. Feeling moved and in all honesty, disgusted we returned to our waiting tuk tuk for the 16km drive to the Killing Fields
The Killing Fields is the location Khmer Rouge officers sent at least 17,000 prisoners from centers such as S.21 to be further tortured and eventually slaughtered. In the center, a modern concrete structure of Khmer design was erected to house 17 tiers of skull and bone of the nearly 9000 bodies that were discovered during the excavation of some 80+ mass grave sites. Some of the larger and more horrific grave sites are fenced off with a sign displaying what was once buried beneath. The largest grave held over 450 bodies whilst other graves were found with only women and children, completely naked. Another again was found full of bodies without the skull. Even on the short walk around the site I looked down only to discover an off-white part of bone that had protruded through the ground after years of rain and people walking over it. If you are wandering why children were killed as I was, it was thought that by leaving a child alive you leave yourself open to the possibility of revenge and thus, it would simply be better to kill them. Some of the younger children died horrific deaths: held by the legs and swung head first into what would become known as a killing tree before being thrown into a grave nearby. A small museum regularly screens a short documentary with graphic pictures and tales from the era from which I was surprised to learn that local workers nearby were largely none the wiser as to what was occurring. The final and most infuriating injustice is that of the four remaining head ‘brothers’ of the Khmer Rouge, only one has been sentenced – last year! The sentence? 35 years imprisonment.
Visiting both of these sites provides such an insight into the dark history of modern Cambodia, the aftermath of which is still evident. Curious as to why I saw no elderly monks in Phnom Penh, I found out that the Khmer Rouge regime sought to create a peasant society and in doing so killed all academics, monks, teachers, doctors and professionals. It’s hard to imagine the effect of destroying all thought capital, and 1/5 of a countries population within just a few years. Speaking to expats who had been in Cambodia for many years I was told that before all the troubles Cambodia was more advanced than Thailand and growing fast. Today, however the nation seems decades behind.
Guidebooks and websites may suggest that the Killing Fields and S.21 are not for the squeamish. However, I think that it is a must see for anyone traveling through the country.