S-21 and the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek

Written by Jane Harris No Gravatar

As a child growing up in the 70s and 80s, my impression of Cambodia was fed largely by the nine o’clock news – Khmer Rouge guerilla attacks, foreign office warnings and the strangely named Pol Pot. It didn’t mean much to me at the time and those early impressions were quickly supplanted in my adult mind by the promise of the country’s key tourist attraction – so much so that when we planned the Cambodia leg of our trip, the itinerary pretty much read “Angkor Wat and out”.

When we arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, however, we found ourself in a guest house directly opposite a building with a sign bearing the words “Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum”. What I learnt there, and during a subsequent visit to the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek, is horrific and will stay with me forever. I’m not going to go into the details here but if after reading this you want to find out more The Documentation Center of Cambodia has an excellent website.

Tuol Sleng Genocide museum exists on the site of a former high school which was requisitioned by the Khmer Rouge when they seized power on 17 April 1975 and transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21). Under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia – renamed Democratic Kampuchea – into a giant peasant dominated agrarian cooperative untainted by anything that had gone before. The populations of its cities were forced to march to the countryside and work as slaves. Thousands died from famine, disease or arbitrary executions. Individuals perceived to represent opposing ideologies to those of the state were taken to S-21 and tortured – ostensibly to interrogate or re-educate them but more likely to showcase the state’s ability to break them and shock others into submission.

Almost all of the 17,000 detainees held at S-21 were killed. When the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese less than four years after Pol Pot came to power only seven were still alive. The mutilated bodies of a further 14 were found in a series of makeshift torture chambers. The dead were buried and the rooms cleaned but other than that the chambers remain more or less untouched to this day. When we visited the museum the only addition to each was a grainy photograph depicting the state in which the final victim was discovered. The detritus was left unexplained – leaving us trying to understand what was front of us, both in terms of the way the implements could have been used to inflict such bodily trauma, and why.

As well as torture chambers the classrooms of the former school were converted into tiny wooden or breeze block solitary confinement cells, or fitted with shackles for holding groups of horizontal inmates together. Every detainee was photographed as he or she was arrested. Today those photographs are displayed on a series of boards. The eyes of men, women, children and babies seemed to look out at us as we passed. Some showed fear, one appeared to be frantically trying to conceal a nervous laugh, most looked like they were studiedly trying not to show anything at all.

There is no official route through the museum. Nothing at Tuol Sleng is off limits. Visitors wander freely in bewildered silence. There is a sense that this is a laying bare rather than a packaging up of what happened.

The same is true of the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek where the detainees of S-21 plus other citizens and soldiers were executed. 129 mass graves were discovered on the site and the brutality with which the executions took place beggars belief. You can still walk past the ‘magic tree’ on which a radio was hoisted in order to drown out the sound of the dying.

For all the violence of its recent past Choeng Ek is strangely tranquil. Most Cambodians are Buddhists and believe it is important that a person’s remains be left to rest in a place of beauty. Accordingly the parts of over eight thousand exhumed bodies have been cleaned, preserved and laid out on the shelves of an intricate mausoleum in a permanent gesture of respect.

Both Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek are described as monuments to genocide – although legally most of the atrocities cannot be described as genocide because they were used by Cambodians against Cambodians. (Genocide applies to the systematic murdering of a group of people based on race or religion not ideology.) However it is defined, estimates say that the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the death of 1.7 million people. Pol Pot died before he could be brought to trial but one perpetrator, the head of S-21, has now been prosecuted and four others await trial under a Cambodian court convened specifically for the purpose in collaboration with the UN.

www.dccam.org

One Response to “S-21 and the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek”

  1. Dave WNo Gravatar says:

    Hello you two – I just wanted to say that your photographs are astonishing, your writing by turns witty, erudite, insightful and respectful, your experiences jaw-dropping. I’m envious, but also grateful to have a chance to peer from a great distance into the world you’re finding out there. It makes me want to look differently at my own world, and find ways to appreciate it more.

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