Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Genocide Museum & Killing Fields

[ 0 ] July 22, 2012 |

I have to be honest, I’m a bit conflicted writing this blog post.  There is no way I can do journalistic justice to what happened at both the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in the late 1970s. The atrocities that transpired here go beyond words, beyond emotion. Just walking through these places gave me a sense of despondency unlike I’ve ever experienced. So rather than attempt to inform, I’d rather attempt to describe the feelings, observations, and overall impressions that were garnered from our trip to these two places.

Before diving in however, I think it’s helpful to read the excerpt below that provides a brief historical backdrop to what transpired in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime.

“During the Vietnam War, Cambodia was used as a base by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, and thousands of refugees from across the country flooded the city to escape the fighting between their own government troops, the NVA/NLF, the South Vietnamese and its allies, and the Khmer Rouge. By 1975, the population was 3 million, the bulk of whom were refugees from the fighting. The city fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. All of its residents, including those who were wealthy and educated, were evacuated from the city and forced to do labor on rural farms as “new people”. Tuol Sleng High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s forces and was turned into the S-21 prison camp, where people were detained and tortured. Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and therefore killed many people perceived as educated, “lazy”, or political enemies. Many others starved to death as a result of failure of the agrarian society and the sale of Cambodia’s rice to China in exchange for bullets and weaponry. The former high school is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where Khmer Rouge torture devices and photos of their victims are displayed. Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), 15 kilometers (9 mi) away, where the Khmer Rouge marched prisoners from Tuol Sleng to be murdered and buried in shallow pits, is also now a memorial to those who were killed by the regime.” Source.

“Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of around 8 million [roughly 1 in 4]. In 1979, communist Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.” Source.

For a deeper dive into the factual history of the atrocities that occurred at both of these places please check out these links – Genocide MuseumKilling Fields.  They are far more factually relevant then I could ever attempt to be.

S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

As described in the excerpt above, the S-21 Prison Camp was Pol Pot’s interrogation weapon.  In use from 1975 to 1979, upwards of 20,000 prisoners flowed through its doors, most of whom ended up being shipped off to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek for execution after having been coerced to implicate their friends and family as having conducted traitorous activities – whether true or not.

S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Situated in a non-descript residential area of town, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum seems to come out of nowhere. If it weren’t for the additional signage and barbed wired fencing surrounding it, it would look like any other abandoned school at first glance. The site comes into focus once inside the fence, telling a completely different cautionary tale.

Entrance to the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

The site is comprised primarily of four three-story buildings, each covered with a barbed wire lattice façade preventing prisoners from committing suicide.

Looking Through the Barbed Wire Facade onto the Central Courtyard

Barbed Wire Covering

Buildings A and C were largely left as they were 30 years ago. A building housed the larger group cells where roughly 30 prisoners would be shackled to a central steel rod by their feet. Building C houses a maze of crudely constructed individual holding cells, most of which are roughly the same length and width as a coffin.

Small Cells

Wooden Cells

Large Group Cells

Large Room Cell

Interior Corridor

Interior Corridor

Photos speckle the walls depicting the mutilated bodies of prisoners held in captivity. Building B is filled with the photos and stories of prisoners, some middle-aged, some old, and some horrifyingly young. I want to look away, but can’t. Dazed by the content, I’m driven to read on in some feeble attempt to try and understand what exactly went on here.

Photos of Victims

Deceased Victims Who Died During Interrogation

Building D is the final stop on this train of horrors. It’s filled with various memorabilia; torture devices, the clothes of children that were tortured and interrogated here, and even the skeletal remains of some of the prisoners – its horrendous.

Clothing of Children Victims

Torture Devices

Leg Irons for Group Cells

No amount of reading, news reports, or movies can prepare you for this. It’s real. It’s visceral. It’s atrocious. The three of us walk out stunned and silent.

Old and New


The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

Nine miles outside of Phnom Penh we arrived at the killing fields of Choeung Ek. After being interrogated at S-21, prisoners would be bound and blindfolded then transported during the dead of night in the back of a large truck to Choeung Ek. Upon arriving at Choeug Ek, some prisoners would be forced to dig their own graves before being executed. Others were promptly killed with sharped sticks or crude farming tools like a hoe or a machete in an effort to save bullets. The sound of deafening music and buzz of a diesel generator served as an audial backdrop so that prisoners couldn’t hear the cries of pain and violence occurring from across the yard.

Sea of Skulls

Mass Grave

Gathered Unidentified Bone Fragments

Walking around Choeung Ek, we listened to the stories of various prisoners via our audio guide.  The various methods of execution are described as you wind your way through the mass graves. Shards of clothing littering the field are immediately apparent. With a closer look I started to find pieces of hollow human bone rising out of the dirt. We were told that there as so many bodies buried here that the bones slowly rise to the surface over time like the contents of a boiling pot. Once a month, groundskeepers walk the yard to gather any remnants of clothing and bone that surface.

Bone Fragments

Found Fragments

Clothing Shards Still Rising to the Surface After More than 30 Years

Bone Fragments

The most disturbing sight however was the “Killing Tree”. Described in graphic detail on the audio guide, the infants and children of adult prisoners would have their heads bashed against the trunk of this particular tree then tossed into a pit grave next to it.

The Killing Tree

Commemorative Bracelets

Mass Grave Near the Killing Tree

In the center of the site stands a commemorative Stupa housing the remains of nearly 5,000 victims that were exhumed at Choeung Ek.

Commemorative Central Stupa

A total of 20,000 mass grave sites similar to this one containing upwards of 1.5 million victims where found all over Cambodia.

After spending all morning touring the S-21 Museum and Choeung Ek, JB, Alison and I were clearly emotionally spent. Dazed, despondent, silent, melancholy – there is no one adequate or appropriate response. Such a visceral experience clearly takes days to process and reconcile. Nonetheless, it’s an important piece of history – a cautionary tale of the darkness that lurks behind humanity’s door.



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Category: Blog, Cambodia, Destinations, Featured Posts, Pat's Blog

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