Phnom Penh – S21 and the Killing Fields

I only had one day to see things in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, and there was only one real option - to visit the two main memorial sites of the Khymer Rouge atrocities, the S21 interrogation centre, and Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields). Three other people in my hostel also wanted to go, so we arranged a songthaew for the day, and headed out to S21 early in the morning. It is very difficult to explain either of the two sites in words, as so much of the experience is deeply emotional. The initial shock of learning what was done, followed by the realisation that you're only seeing a small fraction of the whole story. To be honest, I can't really say much about S21 and the Killing Fields - the memories are hard to deal with. Please read up on the Khymer Rouge, watch The Killing Fields, and read 'First They Killed My Father', and you will get an insight into the horrors that occurred in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 (when the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khymer Rouge's regime). S21 was a school until the Khymer Rouge took power and turned it into an interrogation centre. Thousands of people passed through it while it was open, and only twelve people were alive when the site was liberated by the Vietnamese. Around half of the rooms are empty cells, some with the original bedframes, and most with pictures taken as they were initially found - usually the pictures showed dead bodies on the beds or floors. The rest of the cells contained pictures of some of the former inmates - hundreds and hundreds of them - including children as young as three.
School building used as interrogation centre

School building used as interrogation centre

One of the beds at S21

One of the beds at S21

A skull found at S21

A skull found at S21

The Killing Fields were an execution site just outside Phnom Penh. Following interrogation at S21, 'criminals' would be driven here in sealed trucks, offloaded, and then killed next to open pits. Adults were either shot or stabbed, while children were (allegedly) beaten to death against trees. The 'logic' of killing the children was to prevent them from trying to avenge their parents' death. I spent the tour in silence, with frequent pauses to try to hold myself together - it was easy to become overwhelmed, and I cried by the 'Killing Tree'.
Skulls from the Killing Fields, part of the memorial at the site

Skulls from the Killing Fields, part of the memorial at the site

Wristbands, left in memory of the victims of the Killing Fields

Wristbands, left in memory of the victims of the Killing Fields

The Killing Tree. Words can't begin to describe...

The Killing Tree. Words can't begin to describe...

Writing this post has brought back the memories of the two sites, and has reignited the emotions - deep sadness for the victims and their families, anger at the people who could have taken part in the torture and killings, but also hope for the future as the country continues to rebuild itself. As hard as these places are to visit, I think that everyone needs to - to face up to the awful things that humans can do, and in doing so strive to make sure these things never happen again.
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One Response to Phnom Penh – S21 and the Killing Fields

  1. Suzy says:

    Richard, I found this post so moving. I cannot imagine the emotion you must have felt in seeing the detention center and killing fields in person. I think this year must have been transformational for you. Miss you, Suzy

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