Visiting the S-21 Genocide Museum and Cambodia’s Killing Fields will go down as one of the most emotional and heart-wrenching days of my life.
The Khmer Rouge was the name of the Kampuchea Communist Party led by Pol Pot – an extremely powerful sick and evil man. Unfortunately, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge became the ruling party in Cambodia. It subjected the country’s people to radical social reform; there was mass genocide, and suspected capitalists or the educated were tortured and executed for fear of overthrowing the regime. The result: more than three million Khmer people were murdered in three years. And all of this occurred just over 30 years ago–which I still find utterly beyond belief.
An audio guide is included in the entrance fee of the Killing Fields. I found myself having to fight back the tears when I discovered some of the ways that innocent people were severely tortured and murdered; and when I heard stories from the families of victims who, still to this day, never give up hope that their loved ones will return. We saw mass graves with the remnants of bones, teeth and clothing; but the most disturbing and awfully horrific graves were the ones of women and children who, left with no dignity, were thrown naked into the pit. Next to this particular grave was the killing tree: the place where children were picked up by their feet, their heads smashed against the trunk, and their bodies chucked into the pit. Words can’t even describe how distraught, sickened, disgusted and chronically sad this makes me feel.
If the Killing Fields weren’t a sobering enough experience, S-21 took it to a whole new level for me. Before the rise of the Khmer Rouge, S-21 was a high school. When the communist party took power in 1975, it was turned into a prison and became the place where Cambodia’s most educated were sent to be brainwashed and tortured, and eventually transported to the Killing Fields to be executed. These included doctors, teachers and intellectuals. You’re free to walk around the whole museum, and I can honestly say that it was the most eerie and haunting place I’ve ever stepped foot in. Walking into former classrooms to see the blood-stained floors and beds with chains is an image that’ll remain etched on my mind forever. The next block, with no larger than 1 metre x 1 metre cells, was so tough to see that I couldn’t even bring myself to look inside one. The third block is both a museum and a place of remembrance for those who were cruelly murdered at S-21. There’s a photo of every victim with their prisoner number; some taken just before their death, and some just after. I found myself staring into the eyes of the victims and trying to imagine what must’ve been going through their minds.
When the Khmer Rogue finally fell in 1979, there were just 27 living prisoners left in S-21. Hearing their stories of survival at the final part of the museum was overwhelming.
I’ll never forget this day. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever witnessed, and I think it’d be a crime in itself for tourists to not take the time to learn about Cambodia’s raw and not-so-distant past.