The horror of the 'Killing Fields'

Tuol Svay Pray High SchoolUnder the Khmer Rouge, the route to the killing fields was via an interrogation centre. The most infamous was Phnom Penh's S-21 Prison and the Choeung Ek extermination centre. A visit provides a stark picture of Cambodia's recent past.

The Khmer Rouge Genocide Museum
Tuol Svay Pray High School, named after a Royal ancestor of King Sihanouk, is located in an ordinary side road in Phnom Penh. Inside the gates, it looks like any high school: five buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars and bowling greens.

Individual prison cellsIn 1976, the Khmer Rouge took it over, renamed the school Security Prison 21 (S-21) and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution centre.

The buildings were enclosed by corrugated iron sheets covered in electrified barbed wire, and the classrooms converted into tiny prison cells for individual prisoners and larger mass cells.

All the windows were secured with iron bars and covered with tangled barbed wire to prevent escape. More cells were built to hold female prisoners, and houses around the school buildings were converted into rooms for administration, interrogation and torture.

All prisoners were photographed - the terror of this Cambodian man is written on his faceAbout 1,720 workers controlled the prison. Most of the personnel were boys and girls from peasant backgrounds ranging from ten to nineteen years of age who were trained to work as guards and interrogators.

The prisoners included Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Indian, Pakistani, British and American nationals, but the majority were Cambodians. Civilian prisoners were workers, farmers, engineers, technicians, intellectuals, professors, students, politicians, and so on.

Whole families were taken to S-21 to be interrogated, tortured to obtain a ‘confession’, and then sent to the Choeung Ek extermination centre. The average period of imprisonment was from two to four months

This wall is a montage of children's facesOf the 14,000 people known to have entered S-21, only seven survived. Not only did the Khmer Rouge transcribe the prisoners' interrogations, but also carefully photographed the vast majority of inmates.

Each of the almost 6,000 portraits that have been recovered tell the same stories: shock, resignation, confusion, defiance and horror.

Although the most gruesome images to come out of Cambodia were those of the mass graves, the most haunting were the portraits taken by the Khmer Rouge at S-21.

Today, S-21 Prison is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide: the name means ‘poison hill’, an apt description. The ground-floor classrooms in one building have been left as they were in 1977.

A harrowing painting of babies being dragged from their mother for executionThe interrogation rooms are furnished with only a school desk and chair facing a steel bed frame with shackles at each end. On the far wall are photographs of the sights that confronted the two Vietnamese photographers who discovered S-21 in January 1979: bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath.

In another building, the walls are covered with thousands of S-21 portraits. At first glance, the A young boy chained to his gaolerphotograph of a shirtless young man appears typical of the prison photos. Closer inspection reveals that the number tag on his chest has been safety-pinned to his pectoral muscle.

With a bruised face and a pad-locked chain around his neck, a boy stands with his arms at his sides and looks straight into the camera. A mother with her baby in her arms stares into the camera with a look of indignant resignation.

The photographs and ‘confessions’ were collected in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out.


Some of the many mass graves in Choeung Ek The Killing Fields
Fifteen kilometres from the centre of Phnom Penh is the Choeung Ek extermination centre, the final destination of some 20,000 adults and children who had been imprisoned and interrogated at S-21 Prison.

Well over a hundred burial pits lie in what was once an orchard. About eighty were exhumed – the total number of bodies was around 9,000.

Most had been battered or hacked to death with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift murder weapons.

The memorial to the dead - behind the glass are the bones of thousands of men, women, children and  babies  slaughtered by an  insane ideologyGuns were seldom used – ammunition was valuable. It is said that small children and babies were swung against trees to smash their heads before throwing their bodies into the pits.

It’s a bleak place. Shallow depressions indicate the graves where bodies were disinterred, some labelled with brief notices listing the body count. Bone fragments are scattered around, and a large monument contains the skulls of about 8,000 victims.

S-21 Prison was one of a 167 prisons throughout Cambodia, and Choeung Ek was but one of 343 'killing fields'. In all, 19,440 mass graves have been identified.

Visiting S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek
Visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide is a
harrowing experience likely to distress anyone of a sensitive disposition.

The prosaic torture tools - hammers, pincers, and electric cable, the photographs of blank faces hoping for execution to escape their agony seem almost unreal.

In contrast, the killing fields seem peaceful, a pleasant stroll through a shady orchard. However, when you realise that what appears to be random litter is the clothes of the victim, and the white slivers of plastic are actually shards of human bones, the reality of children and teenagers executing helpless adults and children combine to conjure up an image of hell.


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