S21 and the Killing Fields

We had booked a half day tour to go to S21 and the Killing Fields, Phnom Penn’s truly gruesome “sights”. As with Auschwitz, we felt that this was something that we should do, and the experience was similarly harrowing. We didn’t take any pictures save for one of the memorial at the end.

S21 or Tuol Sleng was a prison for political opponents of the Khmer Rouge, although the crimes for which at least 12,000 people were imprisoned were largely fabricated. The buildings have been maintained almost entirely as they were during Pol Pot’s rule and the atrocities committed there are all too easy to imagine. The sheer brutality is evident and stomach churning, the human capacity for evil is disturbing beyond description. To understand what you are looking at, it is essential to take the audio guide, which is concise, informative and gives context. We knew relatively little about Pol Pot’s reign of terror beforehand, the combination of the two audio tours at S21 and the Killing Fields were excellent from an educational perspective.

The Killing Fields are about half an hour outside of Phnom Penh, and here too the audio guide is essential. Whilst the setting is far more peaceful, it is where the very worst of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes were carried out and at hundreds of other sites like it. We found very little by way of tranquillity there. Not all of the mass graves have been exhumed, the decision having been made to leave the remains in peace. But rains and erosion regularly bring bones and scraps of clothing to the surface, it feels as though even in death, these people who have suffered more than we can even imagine, still cannot find peace.

The above three paragraphs were written on the day, almost immediately after we got back to the hotel. We decided not to edit them, we think that it gives some indication of how shaken we were. The way we described it later was that we had temporarily lost all faith in humanity. Now, a month later, we wanted to add just a bit more. We believe that we found this particular experience so difficult for three reasons: The first is that we knew so little about it before we got there, as opposed to the Holocaust which we had both studied at school and even without this is widely known about at least in its basics. We knew vaguely about Pol Pot but were in no way prepared for what we saw so our shock was very real. Secondly, there are exceptions but the vast majority of those imprisoned, tortured and killed were Cambodians. The fact that the crimes of the Khmer Rouge were perpetrated almost exclusively against their own people somehow made it so much worse for us. Finally, it was so recent that people you saw on the street were likely either survivors or immediate decedents of survivors, it was still so fresh. There was also undoubtedly a certain amount of guilt on our part for having been oblivious.

All that having been said, we do think it is important to go, if for no other reason than to educate yourself. We were grateful that we had visited at the beginning of our trip because it gave context to everything that we saw afterwards. It also meant that it was not our lasting impression of Cambodia and our faith in humanity was restored by the wonderful, friendly, positive people that we met on the way.


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