Khmer Rouge genocide: remembering the horror

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In an idyllic countryside setting in rural Cambodia, the birds are singing.  The heat of the morning sun is tempered by the welcome shade of trees overhead and a few lazy bugs are making a half hearted attempt to land on my bare arms.  Children are laughing and playing in a small school next door.

The grass is a brilliant shade of green and the view over the rice paddies towards Phnom Penh in the distance could sell a thousand postcards  This should be just another lovely spot in a stunningly beautiful country, but it isn’t.

The beauty and serenity of the former longan orchard of Choeung Ek was shattered forever by the Khmer Rouge after it seized power in 1975.  In the nearly three years between the fall of the capital to Pol Pot’s men and the Vietnamese invasion that unseated them, nearly 20,000 people were transferred here from the infamous S-21 prison.  Shortly after arrival they were bludgeoned or stabbed to death, their bodies thrown into one of nearly 130 mass graves.  Chemicals were thrown on top of the corpses, both to mask the smell and to kill anybody that had been buried alive.

These Killing Fields are the most well known of dozens of such sites around Cambodia.  Between execution, starvation, disease and being literally worked to death, it is estimated that up to a quarter of the country’s population died under the Khmer Rouge regime.

There is really no way to adequately describe the feeling of walking through an area where the darkest aspects of man’s inhumanity have been unleashed.  Where every sunken piece of ground once contained hundreds of bodies.  Where innocuous looking trees have stark signs attached to them that you can scarcely bear to read.  Where thousands upon thousands of skulls are displayed in a case stretching up as far as the eye can see, many with obvious signs of the injuries they suffered.

The horrors of this place affect everyone that comes here – none of the other visitors catch each other’s eye as they walk around the dusty trails, lost in the memories and imagining the atrocities that occurred on the very piece of ground upon which they are standing.  Many Cambodians believe that ghosts inhabit places like Choeung Ek, the tortured souls of the victims unable to leave this world.  It is not hard to see why.


The prison that spawned these mass killings – and carried out many thousands of its own – is equally mundane in its outside appearance.  A former high school in the suburbs of Phonm Penh, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was turned into S-21 (Security 21) prison by the Khmer Rouge a few months after taking over the city.

Classrooms were refitted as torture chambers and tiny cells.  Electric shocks, suffocation, beatings, burnings and rapes were commonly used to extract confessions of crimes against the regime.  As the madness continued, the Party began to destroy itself from within, and many of the guards, bureaucrats and even senior party members were arrested and ultimately executed in later years.  Of the 17,000 people that are estimated to have entered the prison, only twelve are known to have survived.

Walking around the museum, which has been left largely as it was found in 1979, is an utterly depressing experience.  The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, so there are many hundreds of photos of prisoners on display.  Virtually every single one of them died.

The torture rooms are grotesque in their starkness – a single metal framed bed, a few everyday items used to inflict unspeakable agony, and many stains on the floors and walls that you’d really rather not try to identify.  Several of the rooms have black and white photos of broken corpses on the walls, the final legacy of the S-21 jailors as they murdered their captives in the hours before the Vietnamese army arrived.

s21 torture

From the list of ten prison rules that are reprinted on a large sign in what was once a children’s play area (“6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”), the repurposed exercise bar that became a crude gallows or the coils of barbed wire everywhere, the abject misery – and brevity – of life at Tuol Sleng is apparent at every turn.

As at the Killing Fields, it would be almost impossible to believe that one group of human beings could inflict this type of suffering on their own countrymen if the reminders weren’t continually staring you in the face.  After a couple of hours in the Genocide Museum I could take no more – it was time to leave.  The humid, dusty air of Phonm Penh never smelled so sweet as it did when I walked back out through the gates of Security 21.  Unlike thousands before me, however, I was not being herded onto a truck headed for an extermination camp, but merely into the back of a tuk-tuk going back to my guesthouse.

As the motorbike bounced over the potholed roads back through the city, my heart heavy and my mind whirling, the grinding poverty, open sewers and desperate glances took on a new poignancy.  Almost as bad as the genocide inflicted upon the people of Cambodia is the ongoing legacy that it has left thirty years later – a legacy of suffering, corruption and pain that belies the smiles and warmth of the Khmer people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way.

There is no doubt that while real progress is being made, there is a very, very long way to go.  This is only exacerbated by the fact that the genocide specifically targeted professionals and intellectuals as it attempted to drive the country back to some non existent agrarian utopia from a thousand years earlier.

To rebuild a country from scratch without having a base of natural leaders turns a difficult task into one of Herculean proportions.  I can only hope that one day soon, life improves drastically for all Cambodians rather than just the elite as seems to be the case now.

God knows they deserve it.

12 Responses to “Khmer Rouge genocide: remembering the horror

  • Your words are so powerful here to describe the unthinkable. So much of travel is looking at places we almost would rather not but must. I can only imagine the heaviness you must have felt actually being in the Killing Fields. A friend of mine is Cambodian and both of her parents escaped the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. I am reminded after reading this how lucky they were to get out of the country at that time.

  • What a beautiful post. I remember visiting and I was really speechless. One thing I did want to mention is that across the street there is a store that sells good made by local women and victims of landmines as they really have no other option to make a living. The prices are still unbelievably low and the proceeds go toward a cause that helps Cambodia grow in a proper way.

  • Thanks Suzy – both the Killing Fields and the Genocide museum were horrific places, and yet I’d still recommend any visitor to Phonm Penh to go to both of them. They bring home the horror of the Khmer Rouge far more than any book or photo can do, and provide a degree of understanding of the battle this beautiful country and its people face to build a new future.

    Ayngelina – thanks for your kind words, and also the mention of the store across the road. I actually meant to put something about it in the post but forgot – so cheers for doing it for me. 🙂

  • I don’t even know what to say… I felt like this when I visited Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa. I can’t imagine leaving there and not being a changed person. I think this was the perfect tribute to such a powerful experience.

  • Thank you for sharing this. It’s often easy to forget, or even ignore, the gruesome history of a country when you feel as though you’re in paradise. I think learning about a place’s history gives your trip a completely different perspective.
    Thanks Dave.

  • I’ve visited Choeunk Ek and S-21 on 4 or 5 separate occasions and the feeling I get when leaving is always the same. A combination of despair and hope. I was lucky enough to meet Mr Van Nath, one of the 7 survivors of S-21 who passed away just the other week and the lost look in his eyes said it all.

  • Thank you for sharing this! Visiting these sights is on my bucket list as genocide was my undergrad research topic although I focused more on Rwanda. Your words and thoughts are poignant and reflective!

  • June Vincent
    8 years ago

    Hi Dave I read this the first time round and your descriptions are still sad and horrifying. I had to leave Toul Seng as I was feeling so overwhelmed and never went to the Killing Fields. In my book the fact that Khmers were committing these atrocities on their own was the most terrifying part of all. While the Khmer Rouge trials are very late in the piece it may help with some closure for people, especially older folk who were so directly affected. I am going back in August for three weeks to see my friends as I miss them so much.

  • Thank you for sharing this. I’m planning a trip in Cambodia next year and this post already made me want to skip this trip. I’ve always regarded myself as one who has a wild imagination and your words in this post made me feel horribly sorry for what happened here. I don’t think I could take it well when I see everything here firsthand. 🙁
    I am looking forward for my Siem Reap though. 🙂
    Thanks again. 🙂

    • Hey Steph,

      Yes, it’s certainly not an enjoyable experience – but it is one that I think helps visitors understand the recent history of the country. I do think it’s important to acknowledge that the world isn’t always pleasant or good, and to remember and acknowledge the bad times in the hope that they can be avoided in the future.

      • you’re right, I absolutely agree.
        after reading your post I researched more about the khmer genocide at once and learned a lot, and I’m kind of getting more and more interested despite the dark and cruel story. It’s really good that I learned about this so I can prepare myself if ever I end up visiting the place.

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