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The Killing Fields

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As soon as the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, they started a program of mass evacuations. Within 3 days the city streets were cleared and the entire population, including the hospitals' sick and dying, were making their way into the countryside. All told 2 million Cambodians were forced to give up everything, travelling to far distant provinces to play their part in the creation of an agrarian utopia. In a country that only grew 30% of what it consumed the consequences were obvious - mass starvation.

A new age had fallen upon Cambodia. As one Cambodian put it “Where there were streets without people, houses without people and men fought over a grain of rice stuck to the tail of a dog”. Whether or not these initial actions of the Khmer Rouge leadership were made out of ignorance or misjudgement, their continued and prolific acts of barbarism proves their total lack of respect for the individual, or any number of individuals, in pursuit of their ideals.

An old school house in Phnom Penh stands as a testament to the wanton cruelty and inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge. It was in this French colonial school, situated in the heart of an empty city, that 20,000 political prisoners were detained, questioned, tortured and raped. Security Office 21, or S21, was just one of many similar interrogation centres run by the increasingly paranoid Khmer Rouge leadership. Here confessions and accusations were extracted under such duress that in no way could they be considered valid. Children would falsely betray their parents, lovers their partners and low ranking political prisoners senior party members - anything for the torture to be over. For most, it ended at the notorious killing fields – only 7 people of the 20,000 survived.

The regime of S21 was harsh beyond belief. Amongst the cruellest of guards were the 12-16 year old warders. Without a strongly ingrained morality and given positions of total power over their captives, their actions became bestial. Prisoners were regularly questioned and tortured with a variety of techniques, from fingernails being pulled out to electrification and suffocation. Important political prisoners were kept in their own 2 1/2 foot by 6 foot cell, feet shackled to an 2 foot iron bar. As horrible as this sounds it was infinitely preferable to the treatment of the bulk of S21’s residents. They were kept 60 to room, that in a different time taught classes of 25. Here there were just two iron bars, each the length of the room. 30 people would be shackled alternatively to each bar, feet touching feet. No bedding, sound or movement was allowed.

The security regulations, still displayed at S21, clearly show how severe conditions were.

The Security Regulations
You must answer accordingly to my question – don’t turn them away.
Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
Don’t tell me either about you immoralities of the essence of the revolution.
While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you do something, you must do it right way without protesting.
Don’t make pretexts about Kampucheas Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.
If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

One of the most bewildering aspects of this horrific past is that it was so recent and Cambodians have to live with it everyday. Guards, torturers, executioners and senior Khmer Rouge officials still freely walk the streets in the country they almost destroyed. One of the most vivid parts of our visit to S21 was watching a film where a man calmly recounts how he took people to their deaths.

“After the prisoner confessed and the proper paper work had been filled out and signed I would put the prisoner in a cell and shackle their hands and feet. When it was time to take them I would stand outside their cell and shout their name. They would answer. I’d then unlock the door and their shackles. If they shouted or screamed as I walked them down the stairs I hit them with a stick. I’d try and get them into the back of the truck but they would often resist and shout.”

– No, you are going to kill me

“I would hit them and tell them”

– No I am not going to kill you

“When the truck was full it would be driven to the killing fields. Here my job was to take down everyone’s details - to make sure that proper records were kept. I’d ask them their names again and they would answer. Sometimes they were made to dig pits and then to kneel down beside them. If they didn’t we hit them. Then they were either shot in the back of the head or hit with iron bar at the base of the skull.”

“One day I had brought 5 prisoners there and had taken all their details, as was my job. Comrade Dutch (the prison governor) was there and when I walked away he called me back.”

- Are you afraid?

- No I am not afraid Comrade Dutch

- Are you afraid to take a life

- No I am not afraid Comrade Dutch

“He gave me an iron bar and I hit each of them on the back of the head. I hit hard and they fell, one by one, into the pit. Normally I just took down their details. I only ever killed 5 people, that is all, only the once”

Narration is from memory inaccuracies exist

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of skulls at the killing fields Cambodia Travelogues
Painting of sleeping condition at S21 Cambodia Travelogues
Skulls in a massive display at the Killing Fields

A depiction of the sleeping conditions in S21

Picture of S21 interrogation centre Cambodia Travelogue
Picture of S21 interrogation centre Cambodia Travelogue
S21 - interrogation centre
S21 - interrogation centre

Picture of S21 interrogation centre Cambodia Travelogue
Picture of S21 interrogation centre Cambodia Travelogue
Individual cells at 21
Accurate and details records were kept