The Killing Fields and S 21 – Cambodia


Not all aspects of travelling are  light and frothy, spectacular and challenging,  joyous or chilled.  Countries have histories and within those histories are stories of murder, genocide and tyranny.   None more so than Cambodia.    On my first visit to the country it was apparent that there were missing generations of people – especially the elderly.   Stories of hardship, difficult choices, starvation,  murder and mutilation were recounted by my hosts on numerous occasions as if the shame, grief, anger, guilt and bewilderment would be dimished the more they shared with the world.    I remember being on the back of a bike when my young driver, who I had known for all of 10 minutes,  recounted the decision of his family to smother his grandmother with a pillow rather than let her  starve to death, or be taken by the Khmer Rouge.  It was one less mouth to feed – a sacrifice for the children of the family he told me.   It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to listen to, suspending my judgement to hear out a man racked with guilt and sorrow for the murder of  his grandmother in an attempt to spare her and to save the others.

So it was with mixed feelings, on a later visit to the country, that I decided to finally visit S-21 and the killing fields.

S-21 prison

Tuol Sleng Museum, the notorious S-21 was originally a school for children taken over by Pol Pot and his forces in 1975.  It became a centre for torture and killing.  Some 100 prisoners were killed a day at it’s zenith.   Over 17,000 of its detainees were executed at the killing fields of Choeung Ek.  The difference between the two sites is stark.  S-21 confronts one with its barbed wire, torture rooms, blood stained floors, photographs of the victims, visual art, stories of survivors and torturers.  The killing fields is tranquil, green trees and shaded walks superficially disguise what atrocities took place here.   But wandering around one finds traces of bones, teeth and clothing rags that have been uncovered by the rain and the  horror seeps in.  If this doesn’t do the trick the memorial stupa will with its 8,000 or more skulls plus clothing that have been found on the site will.

s 21 cells

The Khuma Rouge liked to take photos of their prisoners

The Killing fields

For me, the sites brought home the depths to which man can plummet and the evil that he can inflict on others.   But what struck me more was that despite everything the Cambodian people have been through they are still  loving, open, kind, friendly, resilient and peace-loving.  They send a strong message to the world about survival and forgiveness.

I will be interested to see how many hits I get on this blog compared to my others.  Sadly I suspect that it will not be a lot.

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8 thoughts on “The Killing Fields and S 21 – Cambodia

  1. I visited Choeung Ek last year. This is what I wrote in my diary. The feelings still haunt me when I think about the sadness of Cambodia. “In the silence of the peacefulness, I hear the screams and smell the blood and decay. Walking around the grounds, I try hard not to tread on the shards of bones and the remnants of clothing that the rain-washed ground continues to give up. It is an eerie feeling, one that words cannot do justice. My mind tries to come to terms with the terror and suffering that must have taken place here. It is impossible.”

  2. Eloquent. I was impressed when I was there with how resilient the Cambodians are. Most I met were happy and had moved on, god knows how. The thing that really horrified me was the behavior of tourists at the killing fields. The American (of course) with the video camera, arranging the clothing of murdered civilians that was seeping out of the ground, to get a better shot. The Brit who never saw the small museum, cause she refused to take her shoes off to enter. Over a million people were murdered, here but she just couldn’t imagine getting her feet dirty. I couldn’t pick between telling them to go home or crying…

    • Unfortunate that there are people like that out there. When I was working in Thailand after the Tsunami Phuket started oranising disaster tours. The Tourists would get off their nice air-conditioned bus, pick up a spade and pose with the volunteers. Then often refuse to look around our crafts shop where the locals were selling merchandise – it was all a bit sickening really.

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