DISCLAIMER: Reader discretion is advised. Please read further knowing that the following will contain powerful images and written depictions of the horrors the Cambodians endured during the very recent past. This is meant for educational purposes and its purpose is to spread awareness. All facts stated are my interpretation of the Audio tour guides, personal research, and visitation of the S-21 Genocide Prison and Killing fields located in Phnom Phen, Cambodia.
A History Untold: Cambodian Genocide and the Khmer Rouge
Yes. You read that correctly. Genocide. No, not the holocaust, although equally as horrific. Actually, I’d even argue that what happened in Cambodia is worse in one crucial way; The western world barely knows about it. History books do not talk about it although it happened in the late 1970’s. Our parents, and perhaps even our siblings, were alive during it. Global awareness. Great and terrible things happen beyond our scope of the western world and the following is but one case (a very recent one) of the horrors that we plead ignorant to.
“…an estimated 3,000,000,000 deaths, or 25% of the population of Cambodia, the horrors stemming from the Khmer Rouge know no end.”
The Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rough, lead by a particularly cruel and psychotic man named Pol Pot, was a Cambodian “Political party” which had a vision of an equalized Cambodia, where the people shared in everything, and lived with the ‘ways of the land,’ surviving with farming and agriculture, and not westernization and education. For 3 years, 8 months and 20 days the Khmer Rouge’s insistency on absolute self-sufficiency through reformation of agriculture, abolishing banking, schooling, and currency led to wide-spread famine, death from treatable diseases and extremely over populated forced labor camps, or ‘farms’ as they would be referred to. Leading to an estimated 3,000,000,000 deaths, or 25% of the population of Cambodia, the horrors stemming from the Khmer Rouge know no end.
Evacuation of Urban Areas
The Khmer Rouge evacuated urban areas to force its residents into rural farms in order to work the land and produce more crops to further sustain their nation. An unrealistic ideology of Pol Pot given that most of the urbanites had never farmed before and were clueless when it came to working with the land, which led to even more death by starvation and horrid living conditions.
Tuol Sleng Centre AKA “S-21”
A top-secret prison located in Phnom Phen, housed horrors rivaled only by the darkest areas of history. A place of torture and death, reserved for traitors and those ‘convicted’ of treason. Once a school, an institute of higher learning for the betterment of the Cambodian Nation, now a house of terror as prisoners were shackled to beds, stuffed into over crowded cells and tortured for information, confessions, and other ‘necessary’ information.
Operated by ‘cadres’ or Khmer Rouge soldiers, some 17,000 people passed through the prison, before being taken to the killing fields and only 12 are known to have lived to tell the tale.
“…there wasn’t time enough to properly ‘dispose’ of the 14 people still shackled to the beds of the torture chambers.”
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the prison is left in remembrance of the horrors that can come from blindly following one mans insane ideologies.
Upon the over throw of the Khmer Rouge, the prison was invaded and although the cadres had destroyed documents and removed evidence, there wasn’t time enough to properly ‘dispose’ of the 14 people still shackled to the beds of the torture chambers. These 14 people were stabbed or bludgeoned and left to lay shackled to their beds… The 14 graves are left in remembrance.
The above pictures are a picture of the bed and shackle in one of the rooms, and a picture from the day the prison was over thrown, one of the victims left…
Prisoners were often hung on the gallows until they were unconscious, then let down and dipped into one of the picture urns, which was filled with a liquid frequently used to fertilize the garden, in order to wake them back up to continue the abuse.
The main prison building, which housed the inmates, had been lined with barbed wire mesh to prevent prisoners from jumping over the ledges… it was said that some prisoners would take lanterns and dump the oil over their heads, jump off the balconies, or drown themselves to escape.
The memorial shrine, erected in the center of the prison, stands as a reminder of the horrors the Cambodian people endured and memorializes those who were lost during the darkest of times.
The Killing Fields
Once laden with mass graves and unspeakable horrors, these, now barren, killing fields are a place more horrific than even those of the holocaust. Disguised as officer grounds, this walled area was routinely filled with blindfolded, naked, starving Cambodian men, women and children. They were brought here for one reason: To die.
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake.” – Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge Leader (Brother Number 1)
The Khmer Rouge, you see, viewed bullets as ‘too valuable to waste’ on those who were perceived to be against the regime, so the cadres resorted to primitive bludgeoning, pickaxes, serrated stems of palm leaves, and brutal beatings to dispose of the ‘traitors’.
Pol Pot believed that he must not only kill the adults, but also the children in order to secure himself so that no member of a family desired for revenge. Pol Pot once said,
“To dig up the grass, one must remove even the roots.”
Below is my recounted SnapChat story of my visitation of the killing fields. It will walk you through the horrors that once plagued this nation. Again, please read and view at your discretion…
Pol Pot’s Mistake
In April 1978, Pol Pot fearing a Vietnamese invasion, had ordered a pre-emptive strike against Vietnam. Several months later, the Vietnamese, unhappy with Pol Pot’s military antics, joined forces with the KUFNS, a group of Cambodian anti-Khmer Rouge soldiers, in order to take down the regime. They [Vietnamese & KUFNS] successfully captured Phnom Phen by January 1979, which induced a Khmer Rouge retreat to the west.
“…you will find a nation on the rise. A nation full of smiles and willingness to help. A nation full of people willing to give when they have next to nothing.”
This ultimately began the down fall of the Khmer Rouge, despite the Cambodian’s feelings towards Vietnamese rule, the Cambodian people sought any and all possible help.
1997 rolled around and the Cambodian people were finally in a place to think about wanting a trial for Pol Pot and his cohorts for the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime. The people of Cambodia approached the UN in hopes of aid in this endeavor and, although it took over a decade, the UN set up the “Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCC)”, or known better as the Khmer Rouge Trial.
Pol Pot passed away in 1998 and was never punished for his crimes against humanity, but in March of 2009 four of the rare survivors of S-21 appeared to be witnesses in the trial, enabling the UN to sentence four of the former senior leaders of the regime to life in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and premeditated murder.
Cambodia, once a great nation, one of the most advanced in all of South East Asia, had been set back decades of progress. A now fractured nation recovering from the hardships of a crazed political leader. Once a proud, well educated and advanced society now reduced to a society grasping at the fibers of life. The Khmer people will not forget the horrors brought forth by Pol Pot and his radical supporters. With the help of the world, Cambodia has begun rebuilding itself from the ground up. Despite the recent hardships, when you visit Cambodia you will find a nation on the rise. A nation full of smiles and willingness to help. A nation full of people willing to give when they have next to nothing. The Khmer people have opened my eyes and heart, just as I hope to open yours.
How to get there: The easiest way to get there is one of the eager tuk tuk drivers outside where ever you’re staying. Negotiate a fair price.
- (Cost is inclusive of one of the best audio guides I’ve ever listened to.)
- S-21: $3, (12,000 CR) OR In house guide for $1-2 extra.
- Hours: 8am-6pm (please be aware of holidays for hours may differ)
- Killing Fields: $6, (24,000 CR)
- Hours: 7:30am-5:30pm (please be aware of holidays for hours may differ)
Phnom Penn: Whats to see?
Battambang: Home of the Bat caves and a slow boat through the floating villages to Siem Reap.
Siem Reap: The once forgotten Angkor Wat