On Sunday 6th August I entered the secret Khmer Rouge torture camp known as S-21 or Tuol Sleng. A site of extreme contrast, S-21 was redesignated from a school to a centre for forced confessions and barbaric torture. We were warned about what might be inside. Truthfully different people reacted in different ways to the horrific scenes before us; having each other the only thing getting us through.
Building A was to our left as we entered the compound. The barbed wired and boarded air vents were scars from the perverse transformation that had taken place. I walked over to building A, led by the audio guide warning of the Interrogation and Imprisonment that had taken place. The external bustling sounds of Phnom Penh made the exterior of the building feel firmly set in the past; walking into the building dragged me back.
The interrogation rooms were bare with filthy floors and walls still displaying the crimes committed within them. I can’t describe the smell, not being distinct, but present enough to repel my nose. These rooms still contained the beds where interrogators would force confessions from their victims. The stark reality of these atrocities was not hidden but displayed in photographs and the blood stains on the wall. We absorbed the atmosphere in these rooms of horror, classrooms facing out to the bustling city.
Leaving this building was a relief, but we were aware it was only a foreshadow of what we were about to see. Outside of the building a gym climbing frame stood adjacent to a large wooden frame with pots underneath. The children’s toy served as entertainment for the building’s first inhabitants but the Khmer Rouge’s reappropriation. The gallows, standing around nine feet high, were used to hang people by their wrists until they passed out. They were then resuscitated by being submerged in human faeces before they then continued their torture regime. A striking contrast in setting and emotions continued as we moved through to the next building.
Building B was even more defaced and warped than those previous. Corse cells had been constructed from bricks and cement, few lucky enough to overlap a window. Inside these cells men, women and children were held. The silence was enforced with beatings should a sleeping hostage dare move and rattle a chain. On the second floor, many stories of the Khmer Rouge members and their victims made for further horrors. The emotion of fear and despair evoked from the letters of those taken in by propaganda and anger from the members of Khmer Rouge yet to face justice created turbulent thoughts. To read of injustice being committed and closure not being given in the same room made me feel sick and angry.
Building C only worked to evoke more feelings of anger and despair for the darkest depravities contained inside. For me personally, the stories of children being separated from their parents and what they must have witnessed tugged at my insides. Walking through the rooms of horror, victims starting from mugshots, I was not alone. Surrounded by friends and those I could seek comfort from presented a welcome relief from the audio guide. Listening to the harrowing mistreatment of fellow human beings, imagining it being myself in these rooms, my family also, it was easy to drown in the emotion. Building C contained the tools of torture, stories of families brutally destroyed and finally a room with skulls and bones of victims. The connection with the past was tangible and unlike previous museums I have visited, I felt those people presented in front of me. In contrast, comforting those around me and sharing the experience provided a tie to the present and a shield to stop me from feeling lost in the depths of how horrific humanity can be. The horrors of those buildings will never leave me and neither will the bonds I have with the fellows I shared those horrors with.
After exiting building C we were met with the monument commemorating those that had died in S-21. Pausing here allowed us to consider what had happened there, what still happens today and whether this might be repeated in the future. The funds to build the monument were donated by the German government an act of kindness and kinship between these two countries. Walking around this we found Marquis with two happy individuals selling books. It transpired that they were survivors of the camp who had their life biographies on sale. These books were poignant anecdotes of what had taken place in the building we all shared together. One of the survivors pointed to a photograph in his own book and said ‘That is Pol Pot, he killed my wife’. This man was friendly and greeted us with a smile, an experience hugely different to that which greeted him on arrival.
‘That is Pol Pot, he killed my wife’
Leaving S-21 we travelled through the city to the site of the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. The killing fields were once a Chinese burial ground, where the dead were brought by love ones for respectful burial. In continuation of their previous projects, the Khmer Rouge defiled the land by using it for torture and death. Moving through the fields we were quick to discover evidence of atrocities still lying in the earth, lying alongside symbols of love and respect from visitors who had left tributes to those that had died.
Just on further from the initial sites of mass burial was a large beautiful tree covered in more tributes and set in a tranquil glade. Looking at the size and the shade it gave, it was a welcome sight for those looking to hide from the mid-day sun. Reading the sign nearby, it became clear that what happened there just 40 years ago really did not reflect the beauty we could see that day. This tree was called the killing tree and was used to end the lives of babies and small children in the most horrific and inhumane method possible. The vision from the leaders of the Khmer Rouge was to start a brand new simplistic society, with all undesirable individuals removed. Their rationale that their children should also be killed was summed up in the phrase ‘When pulling out weeds, remove their roots and all’. This propaganda message summed up for me the brutality and sheer insanity of the people behind this regime.
‘When pulling out weeds, remove their roots and all’
Khmer Rouge propaganda
In the centre of the killing fields was a structure called a Buddhist Stupa, which contained the skulls of many victims. By the time we reached this, moral support really was needed as the day had been very reflective, dark and immersive experience. Once again, what really made the difference here was the fellowship of people I was surrounded by. The tower of skulls showed scientific markings describing how these men, woman and children had been massacred with brutal tools for murder. Laying a flower and incense with another compassionate friend allowed us to pay respects to those inside and around in the best way we could. The faces of the victims inside, staring out of the display case, made any beauty of the flowers and incense fade away quickly. These were human beings, with love, hopes, and finally fears who had their lives needlessly and tragically taken away.
One moment of today lacking juxtaposition was our meal after the killing fields. The strangers we were two weeks ago, we might have not known how to approach each other in our different moods of contemplation. As a fellowship, a group of friends, we now knew that the best remedy for these fields of horror was to chose kindness and banish the negative feelings for that of love between us all as friends. In a place permanently scarred by brutality, being surrounded by the warmth and friendship of fantastic human beings. I am so grateful to the people who helped me feel grounded that day. I know that whenever I reflect on the darkness and sad events of that day, I will also be reminded of the love and fantastic feelings I found in my friends surrounding me that day!