There is a high school in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia, known as S21. The facility is no longer used as a school on account of the blackness that fell upon it in the 1970’s. We wound our way through streets and alleyways, and when we saw the rusted razor wire atop the school’s perimeter wall, we knew that we’d arrived.
In 1975, following the Vietnam War, a ravenous group of idealistic youths descended upon Cambodia’s capital, commanded by their leader, Pol Pot. They believed that Buddhist Cambodia should abandon its capitalism and embrace fundamental communism by whatever means necessary. They called their party the Khmer Rouge.
The unsuspecting capital quickly fell to the Khmer Rouge, and within days all of the capital’s inhabitants had been forcefully evacuated from the city and marched into the countryside to do communal labor. Soon the entire country had been overtaken, the borders were sealed, businesses were closed, and the population was forced into manual labor camps.
The first order of business for the Khmer Rouge was to carry out a process of brainwashing and the elimination of anyone with an education. Anyone who had been to college, who could speak a foreign language, who had worked as a professional, and those who wore glasses were silently removed from the work camps. Furthermore, anyone suspected of dissent was silently taken away. Nobody knew where the people were sent, but day after day families were broken up and nobody knew when the day would come that they would be carted off.
The S21 school had been turned into an interrogation facility. Whenever someone was suspected to harbor feelings of dissent against the party, they were brought here. The purpose for being taken to S21 was never explained to the subjects, and initially they went along without suspicion. When they entered the school, each person was photographed and documented. The photographs of each person who passed through S21 are displayed on boards and walls in several of the classrooms in chronological order. The earliest photographs depict happy people, smiling and wide eyed in the same way that we have come to know modern Cambodians.
After being photographed, people were chained together and made to lie face down for days on end in classrooms-turned-holding cells while they awaited interrogation for made-up crimes. Dozens more classrooms were segmented into prison cells by crude brick walls.
The real terror began as subjects were brought in for interrogation. Men, women, children, and the elderly were asked to confess to crimes that they didn’t commit. When they refused, the torture began. We walked from room to room in the school as scenes of medieval torture unfolded before us. Fingers and toes were lopped off with diagonal cutters, arms and legs were broken with clubs or farming implements, teeth were pulled out or smashed in, and they had a special table for waterboarding. Some were hung upside down from a large wooden structure in the school’s courtyard and lowered face-first into large water tanks repeatedly for hours on end.
If subjects admitted to the accusations, they were made to write confessions, and then they were executed on the spot or else sent to death camps in the countryside. If they refused to admit guilt, they were simply beaten and tortured until they died. As the population began to suspect the reality of what was happening at S21, the faces of the incoming subjects began to bear the horror of what was coming.
Within four years, 17,000 people would be interrogated at S21. Only 12 would survive.
Thirty five years after the horror ended, very little has changed at S21. As we walked from one classroom to another, we found metal bed frames to which prisoners were chained and beaten. Photographs on the walls showed bludgeoned bodies still chained to the beds, suspended over coagulated pools of blood. The tile floor in each classroom was permanently stained in blood.
After a harrowing and emotional morning at S21, we got into Nacho and drove toward the killing field on Phnom Penh’s outskirts. It was to the killing fields where the Khmer Rouge sent the educated, the dissenters, and the falsely accused to be done away with. 20,000 mass graves have since been discovered, but most are inaccessible, still surrounded by live land mines.
The killing field is a vast plot of land, which is now completely covered by mass graves. We walked into the area and were met by a scene of dozens of partially-excavated pits. Around the complex small shrines held bones, skulls, clothing, teeth, and other remembrances of the thousands who died there. When it rains, bones continually push up to the surface and can be seen everywhere—even in the middle of the walking paths. As we strolled through the peaceful landscape, we could feel the bones of the dead through the soles of our sandals as though they were pebbles on a trail.
There is a large tree near the center of the killing field that is decorated with small bracelets, and to the side of it there is an excavated pit grave. When the Khmer Rouge fell and this killing field was discovered, this tree was found covered in dried blood, hair, and scraps of skull bone and brain. Excavators began digging next to the tree and made a horrifying discovery. This was the tree that was used to kill babies and small children. The babies were held by their feet and swung into the tree to smash their heads, and then their lifeless bodies were tossed into the pit. It was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen; a testament to the lows to which humans are capable of sinking.
Executions at the dozens of other pits around the area were carried out in a similarly disturbing fashion. Prisoners arrived in trucks blindfolded, and were led to the pits. They were lined up and one by one they were pushed to their knees at the edge of the pit. The executioners were ordinary Cambodians, forced to do this task lest they themselves be killed, and executions were carried out 24 hours per day without any stopping. Lacking guns or other weapons, they were forced to use more rudimentary implements. From the leaves of the surrounding palm trees they created cutting tools, and when the prisoner knelt by the pit the executioner would first saw the jagged edge of the palm stem across their throat so that they would be unable to scream. Next, they would swing a farm tool such as a hoe, a hammer, or a shovel against the back of the person’s head, killing them. The dead body would then fall into the pit, and the next person took their place.
Prisoners brought to the killing fields were told that they were going to new work camps. Fearing that those waiting in the barracks would prematurely learn of their impending fate, the Khmer Rouge played communist party songs at ear-splitting volumes over loudspeakers throughout the fields at all hours of day and night, powered by loud diesel generators. They couldn’t hear their countrymen dying only a few meters from where they sat, crammed against their brothers, sisters, parents and neighbors.
In other cases, prisoners were made to dig large pits, and then were made to stand in them while they were buried alive. Khmer Rouge leadership decided that it only needed two million people to build its communist utopia, and to the others it broadcast over the radio: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
After several hours meandering around the fields we made our way to the Buddhist stupa built in remembrance of those who died there. The stupa was built in a clear glass building, and contained over 5,000 of the skulls found at the site. We stared at the stacks of skulls, each bearing a hole from a hammer, a crack from a machete, or had its teeth smashed out. How could this happen—again?
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge carried out genocide against its own people between the years of 1975 and 1978. In those four years, an estimated 2.5 million people were murdered—over 30% of the country’s population.
Finally, in 1979 help arrived from the North. Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia and defeated the Khmer Rouge, sending their leaders fleeing into the jungle. The Vietnamese assisted Cambodia in forming a new government, and the healing process finally began. But despite the reprehensible atrocities carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, politics would intervene and deny Cambodians of dignity and closure.
America was fresh out of the Vietnam War, and having lost the war, still harbored ill will toward Vietnam. America and its allies thusly refused to recognize Cambodia’s new government because it had been implemented by the Vietnamese. Instead, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was officially recognized as Cambodia’s ruling government, and the Khmer Rouge was subsequently offered a place in the UN. Substantial aid money was given by Western governments to the Khmer Rouge—the jungle-hiding murderers—to aid in rebuilding the country, for years to come. The money was used not to rebuild Cambodia, but to ensure the survival of the Khmer Rouge. America and the United Nations continued to recognize and support the Khmer Rouge up until 1993.
And what of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s Hitler? He eventually came out of hiding and went on to live comfortably in his own home until he died in 1998 of natural causes at the age of 73. He was never tried for any crimes.
The following day we pointed Nacho north toward Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Phnom Penh had been an educational experience for us, and again we found our history to be laced with ugly and embarrassing episodes that had escaped our school curriculum; in Cambodia we failed to act when aid was truly needed, unable to swallow our pride, and in doing so we had allowed an oppressive genocidal regime to maintain power for fifteen years too long. As we go forth into the world thinking that everything is peachy, and that our country is an unwavering model of decency, goodness, and humanitarianism, these experiences are necessary to fill the gaps in our global education and help us form a more complete picture of our role and our place in the world. What an education it’s been.