Humanity at its worst – Visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I should be writing about my travels through Vietnam right now, but all I can think about is what I witnessed today. This post is jumping a month ahead from my last post to the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, to this very day when I visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Today, I saw what humanity is like at its worst.

Before I continue, I should warn you that this post will not be a happy one, and it contains images, footage and descriptions that will be disturbing to you; however if you would like to learn about the horror that the people of Cambodia went through during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, please read on.

On this blog I like to promote travel as a way to make you smile and be happy with every moment, but I also believe that travel is the best education that you can receive. Sometimes that education will not put a smile on your face, but will make you grow as a person and understand the world a little better. This often means learning what mankind is like at its best and its worst.

Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to visiting S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison) or the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, but I knew it was something that I had to do.

Memorial Stupa at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The memorial stupa at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields

As I wandered through Choeung Ek and listened to the audio guide, I was often shocked by what I was listening to, even though I had read a little about it before. I walked past huge depressions in the earth that marked the sites of the mass graves of over 8000 innocent people who were murdered for nothing. These people were only a few of the near 3 million people who died during the mass genocide of the Khmer Rouge, and this was only one of many killing fields in the country.

Mass graves at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Just a few of the mass graves at Choeung Ek

From one grave to the next, I learnt about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide. Not so different to Hitler or any other leader that has committed such crimes against humanity, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, believed in an ideal race. He eliminated education, religion and culture and drove everyone out of the towns and cities to work on organized farms. Anyone who was against his beliefs were considered enemies and executed.

As bad as this was, the way in which these executions were handled was even worse. Bullets were expensive, so the prisoners were made to kneel next to their grave and then killed using any tool available, including machetes, hammers, shovels, hoes and bamboo clubs. One of these mass graves contained over 400 corpses.

Sharp edges of a sugar palm at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The edges of these sugar palm fronds are lined with jagged thorns and were sometimes used to slit the throats of the prisoners

As I moved on, I discovered that there was simply no mercy for anyone. Soldiers were made to execute everyone, including women and children. Babies had their heads smashed against trees and then thrown into their graves. Their mothers had to witness this, stripped naked and killed as well. It is also believed that many of them were raped first.

Any soldier who disobeyed orders was also killed. A mass grave was found here that contained over one hundred headless corpses who were wearing soldier uniforms.

The Killing Tree at Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This tree was used to smash babies’ heads in to kill them. When this site was found this tree was covered in blood, brains and bone fragments.

I was feeling sick as I saw displays of victims’ rags and bones that had occasionally shown up on the surface after heavy rains. In the centre of the site is the huge memorial stupa which contains thousands of skulls and bones of these people, which stands in memory of what happened here.

Skulls of victims at Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Skulls of victims inside the memorial stupa

I was only witnessing a small part of the horror that this genocide really was. The prisoners who were sent here for execution came from the S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison) in Phnom Penh, and this was now where I was heading.

At first glance, Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) looks like an old abandoned school. This is actually what it originally was before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. They transformed this former site of learning into a facility for torture, interrogation and murder. There were so many prisoners here that they had to end up opening the killing fields to send them for their execution.

Torture building at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

One of the buildings at S-21

The facility has been left exactly as it was when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979, apart from the last 14 victims who were killed here and left in the facility. They are now buried within the grounds.

From room to room I saw beds with shackles where people were tortured and interrogated. Amongst the dust on the floor there are bloody footprints and splattered blood on the walls and floors. I could feel only death and horror in these rooms.

Bed and shackles at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A bed in one of the interrogation/torture rooms

Photo of torture victim at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Photo of the corpse of the last victim in this room before the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in 1979

Shackles on a bed at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Shackles on a bed

Bloody footprints at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Bloody footprints on the floor of one of the rooms

Blood splattered on a wall at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Blood splattered on a wall

Piles of shackles at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Piles of shackles

Cells at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A few of the tiny cells

Blood on the floor of a cell at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Blood and chains on the floor of a cell

Torture device at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This was used to hang people upside down by a rope until they lost consciousness, before holding their heads in the bowls below which were filled with filthy water usually used as fertilizer. Once they awoke again they would continue their interrogation.

In the next building are the photos of those who were brought here. The Khmer Rouge documented everything. For some reason I felt the need to look into the eyes of every victim, to try and understand what they must have felt. Some were skin and bones, others looked like they had just stepped into the building and had no idea what was about to happen to them. There are photos of men, women, children, elderly people, even babies. Every face that I was looking at was murdered, all for nothing.

Photos of those killed at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Just a few of the photos of those who were murdered

Photos of victims at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

More victims

Photos of deceased at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

They also photographed the deceased

Photos of tortured bodies at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

When I got to the end of the museum after viewing some of the torture devices, I walked into another room displaying yet more bones of those who died during the genocide. I tried to light a stick of incense to put at the small shrine here, but my hand was shaking so much that it took me five goes to even light it. I was filled with dread and sadness, but also anger towards the political and judicial side of this whole thing. I am left with more questions now than I had before I even visited Cambodia.

A painting at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A painting depicting a scene at Tuol Sleng Prison

Why, after all of this, was the Khmer Rouge still acknowledged as the true government of Cambodia, and even aided by developed countries such as the UK, USA and even my own country, Australia? They kept their seat at the UN until 1993.

Why on earth did it take until 2007 for the leaders of the Khmer Rouge who were responsible for the murder of millions of people to be arrested for their crimes against humanity? With lawyers defending them, their trials have gone on for years. Pol Pot himself died while under house arrest in 1998 at the age of 72 and never even stood trial. Ieng Sary just died earlier this year at the age of 87, again before the verdict was settled. Nuon Chea was the first to fully admit to and apologise for his crimes on March 31st this year, at the age of 86, but this is far too late. These men got to live full lives. The babies and children that were murdered didn’t even get to start theirs. Where is the justice?

What happened here in Cambodia still lives on through memory today. It wasn’t that long ago, and it is still fresh in many people’s minds. If you do decide to visit Cambodia, please make sure to visit Tuol Sleng and the nearby killing fields. It will not be easy, but it is important to really know what this country has been through. I know that I will never forget what I learnt today.

Finally, please take a look at this footage that I filmed while walking through Tuol Sleng Prison. I decided to leave it in silence in respect for all those who died.

Video not working? Click here.

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16 comments… add one
  • Nat Jun 12, 2013

    It is quite shocking, especially when you consider that in the life span of this earth, it happened quite recently.
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  • Jennifer Jun 12, 2013

    I wrote a similar post when I visited the prison and the fields for the second time last year. It sends shivers down my spine thinking about it. The audio guide they have introduced at the fields is simply fantastic and very informative.
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    • Dean Wickham Jun 16, 2013

      Hi Jennifer. I agree, the audio guide is really fantastic. I learnt so much from it. The moment when it played the revolutionary music mixed with the sound of the diesel generator – the sound the people would here before they were killed, just really froze me where I stood. It sent shivers down my spine.

  • Rob Jun 14, 2013

    Although I haven’t been to the Killing Fields, I have been to Auschitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. I believe it is so important to maintain these places firstly as memorials to those who died and secondly as a reminder of just how evil some humans can be given the opportunity.

    • Dean Wickham Jun 16, 2013

      Hi Rob. I agree, it is very important to maintain these places and to educate people about these horrible events.

  • Samuel Jeffery Jun 15, 2013

    It’s a very sobering experience vising the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng. I have immense respect for the Khmer people; they’re so resilient.

    • Dean Wickham Jun 16, 2013

      Resilient is a great word to use, Sam. I have a lot of respect for the Khmer people as well.

  • Marian Jul 10, 2013

    I never know about this until now. I can’t believe this actually happened just recently.

    • Dean Wickham Jul 16, 2013

      Hi Marian. It is quite shocking when you realise how recent this was. I am also surprised at how many people haven’t heard about it before. I’m hoping this post will let a few more people know about this tragedy.

  • I will never forget my visit to the killing fields. To actually witness the aftermath of the barbaric acts committed there is something that will stick with me forever. I walked around the fields in complete silence with the same look of disbelief on my face as everyone else there.

    When I visited the prison, I stood inside one of the cramped brick cells trying to image what the prisoners felt. By far, the hardest thing to see was all of the faces of the people who were tortured before being executed at the killing fields. It was a humbling experience indeed.

    • Dean Wickham Oct 14, 2013

      Hi Travis. Yes, I think that those faces may haunt me forever. You can actually see the fear in their eyes. It is all very difficult to take in, but so important as well. Thanks for commenting about your experience.

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