"The place people go but never come out"
The Killing Fields and S-21 prison are main attractions in Phnom Penh. This was one of the main reasons for us visiting Cambodia. As someone who really enjoys history, I was interested to see what it was going to be like; as learning from the Vietnam War Remnants museum; it's good to know the Asian view on their own history, instead of constantly being under the Western state of mind.
We visited the S-21 prison first as our hostel was only a 10 minute walk from it. The thing that baffled me was the location; outside seems so ordinary with restaurants, market stalls and just normal day to day life. It obviously wasn't like this during the actual time of the prison being run as Pol Pot forces came in and made everyone leave Phnom Penh. We paid our $6 entry fee and got our audio headset guides. This was actually such a good way to learn about the history behind the Pol Pot regime; as you could pause it and rewind to suit you. It also made it a lot more overwhelming as you could listen to testimonies whilst walking round; which really hit you.
The prison was originally a school, and you can see this by the design and buildings. During the 1970's, 3 million people died under the Khmer Rouge. When the Pol Pot regime was at its height in 1977, the prison was killing around 100 people a day. When liberated in 1979 by the Vietnamese army, there were only 7 people alive and 14 dead bodies found. Some survivors have written books about their experiences- which I do want to read when I get home. There were a couple of survivors there just selling their goods- which I would find too distressing if I were in their shoes, as they are literally in the place where they experienced hell.
I didn't expect the prison to be so harrowing, as you mainly hear about the Killing Fields. You walk round several buildings- the first with the individual torture rooms with a single metal bed that the prisoner was chained to. On the wall next to each one is a picture of how they found the dead bodies lying on them when it was discovered. Outside this building is the 'rules' of the prison- one being you cannot cry out during torture. Behind these is 14 white slabs to mark the graves of the remaining dead bodies that were found here by Vietnamese forces in 1979.
The next building along is a gallery, but before you head inside you are made to look at a huge wooden frame with a hook at the top. Guards would hang prisoners from this with their hands roped together, questioning them until they turned unconscious; where they would lower their faces into human waste until they woke up again; where the process would continue. Inside the gallery is pictures that were found; some of victims, guards, torture equipment, labour and maps. Strangely enough for people carrying out a genocide, they photographed everything about the prisoners. The pictures I found the hardest were of the dead prisoners. Guards were not meant to kill people during torture and interrogation, but if someone did end up dying, they would have to photograph it to explain themselves. Some of the prisoners were foaming from the nose, covered in blood, naked and just generally beaten till they were black and blue. Death by torture normally meant the guard who killed them would often end up a prisoner themselves- good bit of karma I think.
One of the stories on the audio was from a brother of an Australian prisoner, who just so happened to be sailing in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was tortured and forced to give a confession; to which his humour did not disappoint. He used his CIA agent number as his home telephone number, his boss at the CIA was the colonel from the KFC logo and he also mentioned his mothers name. This goes to show how ridiculous the Pol Pot regime was as they took that as a legitimate confession. Unfortunately, when a victim gave a confession they were then killed.
I couldn't believe the stories I heard and the things I could see around me- it did actually overwhelm me and I had to take a 10 minute break as I just couldn't stop crying. As someone who really loves history I couldn't believe I'd never even heard of what happened- considering it was only 30 years ago. I have discovered in Asia that their events of history is sometimes forgotten about and we are just taught of wars or things that have impacted our own country or our allies. I don't think this is always a healthy way to look at history, as when visiting a country it's nice (or sometimes not nice) to know what's made them the way they are today. 1 in 4 Cambodians died under the Pol Pot regime; meaning that the majority of the population are going to have someone they know that died due to it.
The next building was individual cells where prisoners would sleep. There were makeshift small brick walls in between each one and they literally were not even big enough to lay down in. In the corner of their cell was a box that they would have to go to the toilet in and if they missed the box they were forced to lick it up. The prisoners were shackled to the floor by their feet, and if these even made a noise during the night, then they would be whipped. They were awful living conditions and the entirety of the building was covered in barbed wire to stop prisoners committing suicide. However, some still found a way round this and during a confession a man stabbed himself with a pen in the neck and bled to death.
In the last building is a lot of art work portraying how prisoners were tortured and some testimonies from survivors. Also displayed is equipment used for torture. There's also a shrine at the end where you can leave messages or comments- I tried to but I honestly couldn't find words to describe what I had seen, and felt any words I did leave wouldn't be comforting enough to families of victims.
Next we got a tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields. This was more remembering the victims and a lot of mass graves had been grown over and the buildings for different things were no longer there. We had another audio tour and explored the grounds. The most disturbing part for me was the tree where executioners picked up babies and young children by the feet and smashed them against an oak tree, until they were dead and then they were chucked into a mass grave. It's astounding how people can just switch themselves off to the concept of a human being and treat it with no respect and take another life- especially a child's. Sometimes when it rains bones and scraps of material still wash up and the workers will go round collecting them and store them in glass boxes found around the grounds. We did see a few bits still in the mass graves that were slightly underground still.
The workers at the Killing Fields used mostly general objects to kill people; including axes and garden hoes, as bullets were expensive. People would stand at the edge of a mass grave, be hacked to death and fall in- such a disturbing and horrific way to die. Also, the guards would play Khmer Rouge propaganda music to drown out the cries of people being executed, so that would be the last thing they heard. So many people died here as the Khmer Rouge believed that when you killed one member of a family, you had to kill them all, to prevent people coming to take revenge. So no matter what their age they were murdered.
I felt completely overwhelmed at the whole site and I just couldn't believe something like this can still happen; especially after the Holocaust, and we just turn a blind eye. I wanted to write my own experience on it as it's something I definitely do not want to forget. I also don't think there's enough people who are aware what's gone on and even if one person stumbles across this on the internet, then I feel better knowing that they have been able to read my experience and learn. I'm unsure whether it would be something I would return to. Although in years to come I would quite like to visit the prison again and go through the tour again and see how I react. This is definitely one of the things that has made travelling so beneficial as you learn about new cultures in a way that the internet or text books can't teach you. I would definitely recommend visiting the S-21 prison and Killing Fields if you visit Cambodia.