I am glad that I wasn’t alone that day because it was very intense, tearful, shocking, emotional, almost painful. The testimonies I heard, the pictures I looked at, the torture instruments I saw,… are still vivid in my mind.
And, I still don’t understand it… Why did it happen? What was the reason behind this massacre? Do you wake up one day and tell yourself you’re going to kill as many people as possible? How can you keep on torturing the human in front of you? How can you kill your own family, your neighbours, your people? Where is the limit? Just…. why?
On that day, we visited the Security Prison S-21 and the Killing Fields. We got to learn a bit more about the Khmer’s genocide that happened only 30 years ago… Today, the Security Prison 21 (S-21) is also known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees”. The site was a former high school transformed into a prison by the Khmer Rouge communists (just four months after they won the civil war!). Many of the school rooms were divided into cells and torture chambers.
Men and women viewed by Pol Pot – Khmer Rouge leader – as potential leaders of a coup against him, were incarcerated in S-21. Peasants, workers, intellectuals, ministers, Khmers diplomats, women, children,…. were all victims of Pol Pot.
The moment they arrived at S-21, all prisoners were made aware of 10 rules that they were to strictly follow during their incarceration. Then, they were repeatedly tortured till they confess to whatever “crimes” they were charged with, or till they gave names of family members.
Their fingernails were pulled out, and alcohol was poured on their open wounds,… But in my opinion, the worst interrogation technique they used was the waterboarding technique: water is poured over the face of the immobilized prisoner, thus causing him to experience the sensation of drowning. Just horrible!
Many prisoners didn’t survive to starvation and repeat tortures. During the first year, corpses were buried near the prison until they ran out of burial space.
They were then taken by bus 15 km from Phnom Penh, to the Choeung Ek extermination centre.
Once prisoners had confess their supposed “crimes”, they were immediately put on the bus for liquidation. They were killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons.
All prisoners had their picture taken the day they arrived. Most of them hang in classrooms… I saw so many portraits of women, children and men. It seemed to never end…there was always another classroom behind, filled with even more pictures. At one point, I just felt sick. I had to get out and take some fresh air.
Nowadays, you can visit Choeung Ek extermination centre also known as “The Killing Fields” because of the numerous sites where masses of people (300+) were murdered and buried.
The first thing you see when you enter the site, is a huge stupa. It’s a commemorative monument filled with the skulls of the victims found at Choeung Ek.
We took the audio tour, which was very informative (and only cost five dollars).
It takes us around the fields while explaining what happened to prisoners. You also hear several testimonies from survivors. It’s really intense to hear their stories on how they were tortured and raped, and on how they witnessed so many killings for no good reason…
About one-third of the population was killed at the time. It makes you pause… think about all the atrocities humans are capable of committing, and why they actually do them…