S-21 and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh

Once there used to be laughter and gossiping in these corridors, then there were screams of agony and pain – now there’s silence, only broken by soft footsteps and whispers of the people coming to learn about the cruel ways of the Khmer Rouge regime. Haunting pictures of the people – men, women,even kids – who suffered here are plastered on the walls, together with testimonials of both survivors and executioners.

I’m at the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A former High School converted into the notorious State Prison 21 – commonly known just as S-21 – in 1975. Tens of thousands of people were put here, tortured and then sent to Cheoung Ek to be butchered, only seven survivors are known.

Walking around the complex is a really powerful and emotinal experience, seeing the once classrooms turned into small cells – in one of the rooms there’s still a blackboard hanging on the wall –  looking at the pictures of people who once lived, but now are long gone, perished in terrible circumstances.


The killing fields

The first thing that hit me as I enter the Killing field of Cheung Ek (one of many killing fields spread across the country), just outside Phnom Penh, is how beautiful and tranquil the place is. The sun is shining, the trees and grass is green. It seems a lot more like a park for a nice little Sunday stroll than a place where thousands were brutally killed and put in mass graves. The looming stupa filled with more than 5000 human skulls is the only sign of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime that took place here less than forty years ago – that and the well-made audio guide on my ears, telling the story of the places I walk past, of the truck stop where people where unloaded, the tool shed, the mass graves, the killing tree, how they used to blast out propaganda songs to drown out the screams of the people getting killed, bashed in the head with various tools, they couldn’t even spare them a bullet.

As I walk along a path past a small lake, some young kids yell out to me. I don’t hear them at first, completely engrossed in the stories told through the headphones. They’re hanging on to the fence, trying to look as desperate and sorrowful as possible. “Five dollars for a picture miss, miss, five dollars”. I shake my head, give them a small smile and keep on walking. They joke a bit with each other, play around, waiting for the next person to pass, and then they take on their roles again.

The last thing I do is enter the stupa. Stories after stories filled with human skulls, all found there at Cheoung Ek. My eyes were watery through out the whole experience. It makes you wonder how any human beings can be so cruel, do such gruesome things. But somehow, sadly, history keeps on repeating itself.