The Killing Fields and S21

Thursday, 24 August 2017

After a very sad day exploring the War Museum in Vietnam we got a bus across the boarder to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, where our harrowing history lesson continued.

I'm going to start by adding a few cheery notes to this ultimately depressing post. Firstly, the hostel we stayed in 'Eighty8' was amazing, great food, cool setting and massive beds! Secondly, the Cambodian people are incredible. I am writing this post on our penultimate day in Cambodia and I can't quite believe just how smiley, welcoming, loving, family orientated, funny, kind hearted, polite and interesting the Cambodian people are, especially considering everything they have so recently been through; which is what I'm going to be addressing in this post.

I will never forget June the 13th 2017, as that was the day I visited The Killing Fields and S21. I was already aware of some of the atrocities and the brutal murders that took place in Cambodia from my own research and word of mouth from fellow travellers. Already I was shocked, disturbed and couldn't quite believe what I was hearing/reading, but nothing could prepared me for what I saw and learnt that day. This next part will not be an easy read, but it's the information I learnt and feel it's important to share. In order to fully enjoy and appreciate a country you must educate yourself on their history, no matter how sad it may be. Here goes...

During the years 1973-1978 a cruel dictator under the name of Pol Pot came into power in Cambodia preaching wonderful ideals to the Cambodian people. He claimed to make Cambodia a classless society, making everyone equal. Of course Cambodia were also sadly affected by the war between Vietnam and America and Pot's ideals gave Cambodia hope and made them feel safe. However this was so far from the truth. Pol Pot believed to make everyone equal, he needed to 'get rid of' people that may have challenged him or questioned his power. This included anyone intelligent, doctors, teachers, foreigners or anyone with an education. He didn't stop there. He also felt threatened by those who wore glasses, people who came from educated families (including children), monks and religious people and anyone living and working in a city. As you can imagine this was most of society. In 1973 Pol Pot drove people out of there homes from the cities and forced them to work on the farms. This included really tough labouring with no rest, hardly any food and water in the stifling heat. Plus these people often didn't have any basic knowledge about working on a farm, causing mistakes and slow work; thus resulting in punishments and famish. Pol Pot trained up poorer people who worked and lived in the countryside to help him in his vindictive plans. These people were often young men who were uneducated, he called these people the 'old people'. As time went on and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (the political party) continued to murder thousands of innocent civilians. The intellectuals or 'new people' were often taken from the cities or from the farms they had been forced to work at and sent to various prisons around Cambodia. One of these was of course S21.

What was once a school, a place of education, joy, laughter and children was sadistically turned into a prison where people, some even children themselves were tortured in some of the most grotesque ways. The cold grey cell blocks that were once filled with smiling, happy children were now cages where only a rusting steel bed lay, a blood stained floor and a photograph displaying the victim that laid there being subjected to vile cruelty. It was almost impossible to see and I had to shamefully walk out of the building and compose myself more than once. It was incomprehensible how it was for the people in these situations. Torture methods included, breaking bones, water boarding, letting insects crawl inside the body, pulling off fingernails and general physical and mental abuse. This went on and on until they made false confessions. Yes that's right the Khmer Rouge made them make up and confess to something that wasn't true so they could legally sentence them to death, insane. Often or not the people being tortured at S21 would die but they would try and keep them alive so they could take them to the next stage of misery, The Killing Fields.

This haunting place, like S21 felt like something out of a horror movie. Walking about this now pretty garden I learnt about how trucks stuffed full of ill tortured people including pregnant women, children and babies were taken here to be sentenced to death. Often they were told they were being taken to new housing to start a new life, this was to save any struggling and difficulty in transporting them around. On arrival at the Killing Fields depending on how late it was they were either left overnight in a small shed like room with no light, no food and no water OR they were taken to there, already dug, grave and forced to stand over it whilst the people working for the Khmer Rouge beat them to death with farming tools or blunt objects. The reason for this was because guns and bullets were just to expensive, so they used what they had. Sometimes there throats were slit for a quicker method and acid was often poured over them to mask the smell of rotting flesh. Babies however were 'smashed' against a tree, this was usually in front of the mother they were they chucked in the mass grave together. Seeing the killing tree where babies lost there precious little lives made my heart feel like it was deflating. How could anyone in their right mind do this to ANYONE? Let along innocent babies and children?! One of the worse things that sticks with me is hearing the weirdly happy, chanting music they used to loudly play whilst the murders took place to block out the screaming and pain. The entire experience felt so surreal. Walking around you could see bits of clothing and bones from the victims still on the ground. Remember this only happened less than 50 years ago.

In total more than 3 million people were brutally murdered. The torment finally ended in early 1979 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Roughe were forced out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese military. Shamefully, the Khmer Rouge were still the recognised leaders up until the late 90's by the west even though they were in exile in Thailand.

I have to say the experience was set out and curated beautifully. Although extremely tough to endure, I learnt so much and having a headset whilst I walked around was much needed. On the headsets you were able to listen to stories from victims that survived which was probably the most upsetting part for me - but a well needed touch to really drive home the reality of what happened.

Walking around Cambodia now I can't help but look at the older generation with such admiration and sympathy. The things they must of witnessed and seen - I will never understand or be able to comprehend. The love, strength and forgiveness the Cambodian people display is unbelievable, even after such misery. I urge you to visit both S21 and The Killing Fields if you're ever lucky enough to be in Cambodia. It's not a fun, happy day but it's something you should be made aware of.

Elly x

1 comment:

  1. I visited the Killing Fields and S21 seven years ago and still remember everything. One of the most haunting places I've ever visited.