S21 – Tuol Sleng Detention Centre and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek Phnom Penh Cambodia
The journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was easy in comparison to many a journey on buses during my travels so far. This was a VIP bus ($2 extra) than the local bus and a whole lot more comfortable. The main reason for visiting the capital of Cambodia was to see the S21, the Killing Fields and the Royal Palace. The first 2 must see stops were a stark reminder of the brutal genocide that Cambodia endured through the reign of Pol Pot from 1975 – 1979.
The Royal Palace is a much the same as the Royal Palace in Bangkok and a beautiful display of the nations history and architecture. I arrived late into Phnom Penh after a 7 hour bus ride and headed for a guesthouse near the Tonle Sap river rather than the backpacker central of the Boeng Lak Lake. One of the main reasons for this was that a development company had recently bought the lake and was draining it to turn the whole area into flats. Anyone knows that inner city lakes (esp in SE Asian countries) are not the cleanest of ponds and more recently on hot days the stench could almost be smelt as far away as Grimsby who said that they were relived to not have the stench of fish anymore!
I settled in to my guesthouse called Royal Guesthouse, which was probably named when they first opened it as there wasn’t too much royalty around the place when I was there. The rates were good, $4 per night and the room and shower were ok, but the room had an unpleasant musty smell about it and when I asked to be moved they handed me a bottle of air freshener as no other rooms were available!! I guess spray enough air freshener and the smells eventually go away! All in all the room was ok and with cable TV it was one of the first times in ages that I caught up on international news. Nothing was really going on so I went outside in search of food.
I thought the streets of Siem Reap were bad but Phnom Penh beats it hands down, dust and rubbish are one of the few things you have to try and avoid whilst walking, other dangers and annoyances include – potholes (never fenced off), girlie bars (leave them to the German sex pests), rabid sex mad dogs, children selling photocopied books and beggars. I encounter all of the above in a short 50 meter walk to find food and drink. Once I found a suitable place I scanned the menu for a decent Cambodian meal, I settled for Pork Snitchnel after a fruitless search. The next day was a big one for me, 1 day 3 sites.
First on the list was the Detention centre of Tuol Sleng (otherwise known as S21) formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, situated in the heart of Phenom Phem. In 1975 the Pol Pot regime turned this school (there is no particuar reason why this school was choosen) into a prison and interogation center. The 5 school buildings were renamed the “Security Prison S21” and the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at S21. At any one time, the prison held between 1,000-1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. All prisoners were photographed upon arrival and then forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.
The day in the prison began at 4:30 a.m. when prisoners were asked to strip for inspection. The guards checked to see if the shackles were loose or if the prisoners had hidden objects they could use to commit suicide. Over the years, several prisoners managed to kill themselves, so the guards were very careful in checking the shackles and cells. The prisoners received four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day. Drinking water without asking the guards for permission resulted in serious beatings. The inmates were hosed down every four days. Most prisoners were held there for 2 – 3 months whilst being interogated for information. They were regulary tortured with eletric shocks, searing hot metal, hanging and partial drowning in stagnant water and suffocation. Many prisoners died from these tortures and it is estimated that upto 150 people were killed each day either at S21 or Cheoung Ek. Of the estimated 17,000 prisoners only 12 people survived to tell the tales. The prison is a shocking reminder about the recent genocide that occurred very recently and yet the west turned their backs on. It is also a harsh and stark reminder of the brutalities of individuals whilst hundreds and thousands of Cambodians also faced starvation out in the fields. From here I journied a short distance out to where many prisoners were taken which is commonly known as the killing fields.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are 9 miles outside the capital city and is the best known monument (as there were numerous of killing fields) and information centre for tourists. The judicial process of the totalitarian communist Khmer Rouge regime, for minor or political crimes, began with a warning from the Angkar, the government of Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime. People receiving more than two warnings were sent for “re-education”, which meant near-certain death. People were often encouraged to confess to Angkar their “pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes” (which usually included some kind of free-market activity, or having had contact with a foreign source, being told that Angkar would forgive them and “wipe the slate clean”. This meant being taken away to a place such as Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek for torture and/or execution. The site was a former orchard and all of the building that were once there which were set up for the purpose of “dispossing” people. At the site there is a small museum and also a Buddist Stupa which is filled with the skulls and clothes of some of the people that were excuted at the the site. The killing fields document death and Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rough was meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed 1.7 million Cambodians, or 21 percent of the population, A soccer-field-sized area surrounded by farmland, the killing fields contain mass graves, slightly sunken, for perhaps 20,000 Cambodians, many of whom were tortured before being killed. The bordering trees held nooses for hangings. Often enough bullets were too precious to use therefore many people were killed with axes, knives, and bamboo sticks. Children were often killed by nailing their hands to trees and the they were bludgeoned to death apparently guards would also throw babies up in the air and then hit them with spades into the mass graves were their mother lay below them dying. The stories of death were all too apparent as the guide took us round and even to this day, remnants of clothes and bone stick out of the paths you walk along. As you can imagine both the sites that I visited that day had an eyrie silence and depressing feel to them but well worth the visit as reminder of the brutality the Cambodians faced not that long ago.