As I sit, comfortably tanning poolside at my hostel listening to some relaxing Cambodian music, just one day after visiting the Choeung Ek Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and the S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum I struggle to find the words to describe what I witnessed. Before visiting I had many people tell me that it was a very emotional experience and that afterwards they needed some time to process what they saw. This only made me more excited to see it. I thought that I was prepared for it but I don’t know if you can be prepared for something like that. It was heavy.
The S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is the actual grounds where 20,000 Cambodians were held prisoner over the course of Pol Pot’s reign. During the three years it was active all but twelve prisoners died. It now holds evidence of the genocide within its walls. There are mug shots of hundreds of the prisoners lining the walls. Torture devices used during the murders remain in the facilities and they would have been easily overlooked had I not been given information on them. Audio tours are given that provide you with such detail in some of the stories that you’re forced to take a breath and choke back tears. The entirety of the experience leaves you in a state of shock and begs you to make good use of everything you’ve just witnessed.
The beginning of the tour places you in the strangely beautiful courtyard of the prison. The grounds were classrooms before they were converted into the prison and so the overall aesthetic of the land is quite peaceful. Yet the narrator mentions that the white mock coffins I’m looking at are a monument to the lives of the final prisoners murdered. They were hunted and slain rather than shot so as to not make noise and arouse suspicion giving away their position, because the prison had not yet been discovered by the Vietnamese. The bodies were then placed into individual rooms, beaten and mangled for whomever to find them. Pictures of the bodies hang upon the walls in each of the rooms with their faces blurred out. The only two objects in each of the rooms are a bed made of metal and a munitions box used for human waste. These were good conditions compared to the rest of the prison.
At the end of the courtyard stands the gallows. However, these were not used for hanging one to death. Instead, prisoners were tied with their hands behind their backs and hoisted up until they lost consciousness. They were then lowered to the ground only to be splashed with human excrement and dirty water in order to wake them up so the process could be repeated. The sight of these gallows paired against the scenic backdrop of lush vegetation is disorienting but only the beginning of a much grander array of unfelt emotions.
The narration directs me towards the next building, where I enter room after room filled with historical artifacts ranging from mug shots to old clothing worn by Pol Pot as well as rags worn by prisoners. Never have I seen such a vast collection of faces either petrified, emotionless, or enraged. The combination of studying these faces while listening to the accounts of what they went through was so grueling. Deep breaths were the only way I would be making it out without having to leave early. As I make my way through the building I see that many other people are stricken with the same emotion I’m feeling. It only makes it slightly easier. This is the kind of place where you remain silent for the entirety because you are so caught up in what you are experiencing that there is no time for anything else.
The following building brings us into the cells of the prisoners. I use the word cells but in actuality they were more like storage rooms. They couldn’t have been longer than 2 meters and wider than 1 meter. Originally intended for a single prisoner, they held multiple once the prison began taking in more and more Cambodians. Shackles would be bound to the ankles of the prisoners. If they made any noise the guards would beat them. Holes were drilled into the walls so that a prisoner could be monitored at any given time. If they needed to use the bathroom they used the munitions box on the floor of their cell. All of this suffering was inflicted onto Cambodians by other Cambodians. The fact that the power of a mob can outrule reason is something that one would expect to never happen after the first time, but as humans we’re prone to it and it’s shameful.
At the end of the tour a survivor of the prison, one of only 12, was sitting down, shaded, talking to guests. I had no idea there would be a survivor there and so seeing him was a largely unexpected but pleasant moment. I became overcome with thoughts: What has his life been like ever since? Does he still have family alive? How does he work up the courage to step foot in this place that has treated him so unkindly, for what I can only imagine is nearly every day of the week? This man holds strengths within him that only few humans ever possess and he’s harnessing that strength everyday in order to maintain peace within the world. I wish I could tell you that I spoke with him and asked him all of the questions I had for him, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I found it a struggle to formulate any kind of words and was forced to just reside inside my head.
Around a forty five minute drive from the S21 facility was where all of the prisoners were brought to be executed, the Choeung Ek Khmer Rouge Killing Fields. Prior to arrival one can only imagine how horrid and decrepid the site must be; barren fields burning in the oppressive Cambodian sun and run down buildings with stained walls. That’s what I thought, and I was 100% mistaken. The killing fields is one of the most peaceful places I’ve visited. Lush gardens and beautiful architecture surround you with plenty of shade. Roosters roam carelessly and are at times the only noise you can hear. A beautiful lake stands still in the far end, where you can take a calm seat and be left with your thoughts. In the center stands an eye-catching stupor. The area is angelic which makes its history so shocking.
Prisoners of S21 were brought to these killing fields and often killed the night they arrived. Dreadful music would be played loudly so other prisoners wouldn’t be able to hear their screams. This music, which was presented as part of the tour, is cold and fills you with anxiety. There were rectangular pits that acted as the graves for hundreds of Cambodians just a one minute walk from the entrance. The amount of bodies wass so much that the rain often brings up their bones and tattered clothes, both of which I witnessed while walking through the fields. The shock of learning about these prisoners and then visiting their execution site was nearly unbearable. It absolutely urges you to stop and think about everything and everyone in your life, what you are doing with your own, and what you could stand to change in order to bring joy to others.
The most difficult thing to bear was listening to the tour as it talked about the killing tree, which is a Chankiri tree that stands near the middle of the grounds. It was used by the executioners to murder the infants and small children. They would be picked up by the legs and feet and swung into the tree head first. It was apparently the most efficient way of killing them. After this was done they were tossed into the mass grave just a few feet away. How could someone willingly do that? It is such an unimaginable thing to think about. I can’t understand it and I hope the day never comes where I’m in a situation like that.
The stupor previously mentioned is actually a memorial site to view the skeletal remains collected over the years. Skull after skull lines the first few floors of the stupor, all with noticeable damages to them where they were either bashed or shot. Never has my curiosity in seeing an actual skull been so quickly halted. This was not the place to see something like that because you think it might be cool. It was awful. Go look at a skull in a museum instead.
At the end of the day I absolutely needed to be left alone with my thoughts so I could process everything that I just saw. My brain kept going back to two things: the killing tree, and Pol Pot. The killing tree because of how much of a testament it is to the brutal nature of humanity if it is ever unleashed, and Pol Pot because he literally changed the world by himself into a much sadder place, showing us that all it takes is one sick individual. After the Khmer Rouge were defeated they retreated back into the jungles of Cambodia. You absolutely know you’re evil and on the wrong side of history when you have to retreat into the jungle to hide. Unfortunately Pol Pot was never brought to justice, although many of the others responsible for the killings were.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit S21 and the Killing Fields, I hesitantly urge you to do so.