Tuol Sleng and The Killing Fields

 

During the years of 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge, Cambodias Communist party, lead a government sponsored Genoside across the country.

Over 4 years an estimated 2-3 million people were murdered, ¼ of Cambodias population.

We in the west were completely oblivious to what was going on. The country was closed off and the only news we got was propaganda spread by Pol Pot and his minions.

His aim was to eliminate what he called the New People. The educated, ethnic minorites, religious persons and anyone involved with the former government.

Wearing glasses was enough to class you as an intellectual and to secure your execution.

Prisons popped up all over the country, places serving only as a holding centre while you were tortured into confessing whatever they told you too.

Following your confession you were taken to a nearby place, executed and thrown into a mass grave.

The stories from the fleeing refugees weren’t believed and while Pol Pot fell from power in 1979, the UN allowed his Khmer Rouge to be represented in the UN until 1992.

Pol Pot himself was allowed to die naturally in 1998, never facing justice for his vast crimes against humanity.

Trials were eventually set up to charge some of those involved in this genocide, in the 2000s however theres only been 1 person convicted to date.

That man was Khang Khek Ieu, AKA Comrade Duch. He was responsible for the running of S21 prison Camp, this came to be known as Tuol Sleng, and it was here I began what became the hardest, most emotional day of travelling I have done.

Tuol Sleng was originally a school, 4 buildings filled with classrooms surround a courtyard where even today playground equipment can be seen. This courtyard is filled with palm trees and flowering bushes. In any other circumstances it would be a nice peaceful place.

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I opted to get an audio tour during my time here, the narrator telling me about the horrors that occurred here. While explaining the history of the place, the narrator also shared some stories from survivors and from those who didn’t.

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When the Vietnamese liberated S21 in 1979 they were greeted by a gruesome site, the final 14 inmates had been bludgeoned to death and left for the Vietnamese to find, the prison despite being in the centre of Phnom Penh was a secret, so any blunt item to hand was used to murder these prisoners, to ensure sound didn’t give away the prisons location.

In the courtyard are 14 graves commemorating these 14 people.

I walked around the rooms that were previously classrooms, inside they contained a steel bed, leg and arm shackles and an ammunition box to use for human waste. On the floor faded bloodstains can be seen. There is a large black and white photo on the wall of each classroom, showing each of the 14 people found by the Vietnamese, and how they were found.

My audio guide informs me that of the 20000 people who entered the prison, only 7 survived. As the Vietnamese approached, the guards, studious record keepers, destroyed as much evidence as they could, so many of these 20000 are still unidentified.

I was lead into a room where some of the records survived. Walls of photos of the condemned. Photos taken by the guards on arrival. Hundreds of deceased faces stared out at me and I struggled to take them all in.

There is a special wall depicting photos of the guards, many young teenagers of 13 years old who were proxy to the atrocities.  

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A small area shows some of the foreigners detained and killed within S21. The audio guide tells the story of A British, Canadian and New Zealand citizan whose boat drifted into Cambodian waters. The Candaian was killed on site and the two others taken to S21.

The audio switches to the New Zealanders brother, talking at the Trials. Telling the story and reading extracts from his brothers “Confession” His handler, Colonel Sanders, was the man in charge of his unit.

His sense of humour shone through within the confession. The heart wrenching moment was when his brother read the part of his confession he had used to say his mothers name, and to let them know he was thinking of them.

He was 27 years old, almost my age.

The next stop on the tour was another of the school buildings, barbed wire mesh covered the outside, preventing prisoners from jumping off to their deaths.

This building featured some of the instruments found and used within S21 to maim and murder. Prisoners clothes can also be seen here.

The following building shows the small individual and larger group cells, my audio guide again switches to a survivors recollection of his torments. He was beaten daily, made to drink his own urine and waste. If he cried out he was beaten more. He read off a list of the prison rules.

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The final building was filled with some of the ingenious ways that the Khmer Rouge had constructed to cause people pain. Home made water torture devices and electric whips. Paintings by another survivor adorn the walls, depicting these in use. The final room I walk through is filled with bones and skulls found at S21.

Following a prisoners confession at S21 they were taken for execution, almost always unwittingly, to the killing fields nearby.

This was my next destination.

As I left the city and got to Choeung Ek, the killing fields, I was struck by how beautiful it was. The dust of Phnom Penh was behind me and a green field lay ahead.

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Again I took an audio guide and was lead around the site.

I was taken to where the prisoners got out of the truck, where they waited and where they were killed. Many of these prisoners were ignorant of their fate as others were quietly butchered close by. Propeganda music filled the air to mask any death crys and to keep the prisoners compliant.

My audio guide tells me, leaves from the trees, hard with a tough serrated edge, were often used to cut throats, and other farming tools were used to butcher, it was rare for bullets to be used.

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The graves were then filled with DDT to ensure everyone was dead.

Following their execution they were dumped into a mass grave. To date over 9000 bodies have been found in these pits.

As I walk along the wooden raised pathway going along the fields my guide tells me to look down.

Its not uncommon, he says, for new bones to be bought to the surface by rain and storms. I look down and see a tooth, freshly unearthed by the previous nights rainfall.

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As I walk around I’m told a story by a survivor of Khmer Rouge, how he escaped Cambodia and what he found when he returned. He told of who he had lost, and what he had seen.

My walk brings me to a large tree, adorned in colourful cloth bracelets. A large sign next to the tree reads, “Killing Tree, against which executioners beat children.

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My guide reads me an account by someone who found the fields, he recalls how the tree was covered in blood, hair and brains. Next to the tree is another mass grave filled with the young and their mothers. No one was safe from the Khmer Rouges paranoia.

Not even their own soldiers. Another mass grave of 166 headless bodies, is testament to that. These bodies were soldiers, killed for unknown reasons.

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As well as the tooth, the rain had also revealed lots of clothing’s, scraps of coloured cloth out on the field, or caught in the roots of trees.

As I near the end of the fields my eyes are drawn to a white stick. Its not a stick. Its an arm or a leg bone. Several more near it have been bought up from the depths of the earth.

Even now 40 years later, bones are still recovered regularly.

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A monument marks the beginning and end of the fields. Built to commemorate the victims. Within it are more than 5000 skulls found on the site, staring outwards at the fields and visitors.

A grisly reminder of what happened here, and in hundreds of other locations around Cambodia.

And a lesson to never let this occur again.

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