The Killing Fields and the S21 genocide museum

WARNING: this post contains some descriptions and images that you may find upsetting.

We booked our tour of the Killing Fields and the S21 genocide museum through our hotel in Phnom Penh. The tour cost $25 for two people (not including admission or audio guides).

The S21 prison was a former high school which the Khmer Rouge used to imprison and torture the Cambodian people during their regime. Our guide was only nine years’ old when it happened and managed to escape to Vietnam with her mother, but her father, brother and sister were killed. She was quite emotional as she told the story of what happened in this place and I wondered what it must feel like to relive her experiences every day for visitors.

The S21 genocide museum

Our first stop were the ‘VIP’ cells where the important prisoners were held. When the Vietnamese army liberated the city in 1979, there were only seven survivors. There were blood stains on the floor. One of the classrooms had photographs on the walls of all the prisoners and one thing that struck me was the different expressions on their faces: defiance, fear, despair.

‘VIP holding cell’
Faces of the prisoners

Some of them were only children and mothers had their babies killed in front of them. They were tortured and forced to sign false declarations that they were FBI agents. It didn’t matter what they said, they were killed anyway. The conditions were horrific – 50 to a room – with little in the way of food, water or clothing. The tour was very emotional and a stark reminder of the cruelty of human beings.

Towards the end of the tour there was a chance to meet two of the survivors. It was quite a strange set up. They were with younger people who were giving us the hard sell to buy their books and have our photos taken with them. It all felt a bit inappropriate, as if the men were exhibits, and you could tell everyone felt a bit awkward. Some people bought a book and others shook their hands, but only one took a selfie with them.

From there we headed to the Killing Fields where the prisoners were taken to be executed. There is a memorial there to the victims of the genocide and hundreds of skulls on display.

Genocide memorial

We used an audio tour, which included survivor stories, and explained how people were killed. One particular tree was known as the Killing Tree. Soldiers smashed babies against the trunk of the tree to kill them or threw them up in the air and speared them with bayonets, so they didn’t waste any bullets. They wanted to kill the babies so that the next generation would not live to avenge their families. Many of the women were raped. It was truly barbaric.

The memorial was sensitively done and as you walked around you could hear birdsong and feel the breeze coming through the trees. Nature was acting as a balm against the stories you were hearing through your head set. Poking out of the footpaths were pieces of bone and clothing as more bodies emerged from the pits. People had left friendship bands at the sites of the mass graves (main picture).

Visiting the Killing Fields was a very chilling and upsetting experience, but it felt important to recognise and try to understand what people in Cambodia went through just 40 years’ ago. All too often, we take peace for granted.

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