The Killing Fields
WARNING: This blog post contains graphic content. We highly encourage you to read it for your own education, but be aware that you will probably find it disturbing.
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.
With all the past history of this kind of torture and genocide for 1,000s of years it’s sad to say that history will likely repeat itself. One would think after the Nazi killings this would end but seems inevitable that it has not made a difference. And we are all part of the problem as a nation of supposedly democratic and caring people.
It seems to be part of our twisted and mentally deranged DNA element we posses and can’t seem to erase. Maybe someday science will fix us. May their souls and spirt be forever relieved and live in peace if that is part of the plan.
Comment by Steve Collier on October 3, 2013 at 10:34 pm
I am forever amazed by the selfless love and adoration a parent gives to their children. We also afford the same gift to our life partners, lovers and friends close to the heart. How the same species is then capable of inflicting such pain and cruelty to it’s own kind I will never understand.
Learn from this experience, then wash this from your souls, don’t carry this with you long. God speed on your amazing journey. Thanks again for sharing with us.
Comment by Gonzo on October 3, 2013 at 10:37 pm
Your recount brought tears to my eyes. It is hard to hear, but necessary to know about, as (like you said) our textbooks would never tell us this. I only know about the Killing Fields in general, because the hard facts were never brought to light in our history books. I appreciate your comparison of Pol Pot to Hitler; as I read, I realized this atrocity was yet another version of the holocaust—although it has not gotten the attention that the latter received. It is beyond belief, how, as apparent in both cases (and many more,) humans can treat each other in such horrific ways. Especially the women and children…do these “soldiers” who carry out such deeds have no souls? I think not.
I appreciate your deviation, for this moment, from your descriptions of beautiful cultures and pictures and foods and adventures, to this in-your-face description of your tour of S21 and the Killing Fields. It is not pretty to hear, but necessary to know to put things in perspective. By knowing the truth, we can then hopefully strive to make good decisions and defy the belief that history repeats itself.
One request: I would like to hear about Cambodia today–do you have pictures and stories of how the people have rebuilt their country, showing them as they are now? Smiling, I’m sure.
Comment by Mom on October 3, 2013 at 10:48 pm
Forever grateful where you have taken us all. I am Speechless of what you have wrote and your photos..May God speed the healing more ever in that land and yes also around the world..That is horror, sickening and tragic of what that country has been so corrupt by dictators. Very disturbing. Thank you both once again for your detailed writing and great photo. Love Mom
Comment by Barb Wieber (Sheena's Mom) on October 3, 2013 at 10:48 pm
And we are so proud of ourselves as the
Comment by Tim on October 3, 2013 at 11:10 pm
Hi Brad and Sheena – Caitlin Ryan here of Flag/Chino Valley/NAU Cycling – I’ve been reading your blog for ages but just haven’t commented ’till now. Thank you so much for this post, it’s a wonderful piece of writing about an atrocious period in history. I’m a lecturer in a university now, this semester I’m teaching a class on Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict. Next week I’m giving a lecture on genocide. With your permission I’d love to use some of your photos, as I’ll be discussing how genocide is memorialized. (I’ll accredit them to you).
On a brighter note, thanks for such a wonderful blog, I’ve loved hearing about all of your adventures.
Comment by Caitlin Ryan on October 3, 2013 at 11:12 pm
After our visit a couple of weeks ago, I’m still trying to process these two places. I wanted to go there since a friend in the states told me about some of his experiences as a kid getting out of there back then.
The faces haunted me more than anything, I think.
Comment by James Schipper on October 3, 2013 at 11:34 pm
Thank you so much for this history lesson, as horrible as it is. It seems that more times than not, our government has found a way to support the wrong side in conflicts.
Comment by William James Long on October 4, 2013 at 12:31 am
This was a very powerful story for me. My mother was from Thailand and would have lived in the Philippines in the late 60’s. Unfortunately she passed away in 1985 and I never had the opportunity to ask her about her childhood or experiences growing up. My wife and I are planning a trip to Thailand and the Philippines next year and we will make this one of our stops.
Comment by Jimmy on October 4, 2013 at 12:43 am
I stand corrected. After reading your blog “A Chance Encounter” (out of order, mind you!), I see that you DID give a wonderful description and shared amazing pictures of today’s Cambodia. I’m glad I read that one AFTER this one . . .it leaves a nicer taste in my mouth and illustrations in my mind :-).
Comment by Mom on October 4, 2013 at 2:19 am
As others have said, thank you for deviating from your regular fare. The Khmer Rouge is one of those terms that many of us have heard but don’t fully understand.
Comment by Keith on October 4, 2013 at 4:59 am
I will be forever scarred by S21… one of the little girls pictured, whose photo you also used in your blog, has haunted my dreams off and on for years now. I think it’s incredibly important to NOT shy away from such sights, in the wild hope that man will one day learn from the past, but man…sometimes it just leaves you weak kneed and breathless.
Comment by Rhonda on October 4, 2013 at 5:31 am
Yeah I feel the same way Rhonda. The girl with 241 looks like a picture I have of my mother from the same time frame. Just chilling!!
Comment by Jimmy on October 4, 2013 at 6:12 am
The last time we exchanged political sentiments , it was over Sheena’s outstanding contribution on the relentless U.S. bombing of Laos , the so called “Secret War” or “Operation Barrel Roll” .. The evil so named to blanket it with a sense of jest and or romance in order to make it palatable . Disgusting would be a mild reaction to it.
However, the thought still sickens me to the core..”Man’s inhumanity to man” conducted as a deed for the betterment of humanity.. In fact, one can only do such things when you detach yourself from humanity and become something humanity still does not quite have a name. Operation Barrel Roll or the secret War…Just imagine..2852 total days of so called war and Laos was bombarded for 2290 days.. every 9 minutes..(.they took some weekends off and in fact dropped their ordinance anywhere so that they could land empty in Thailand and go have a good time with Thai prostitutes…wonder if those guys suffered PTSD.?..maybe not because PTSD occurs mostly if one has a conscience … The total cost to the U.S. $2.0 million a day or $17 million a day in todays dollars. The U.S. has provided only $3 million dollars per year to clear the roughly 80 million unexploded bombs that even today kill children on a daily basis. The U.S. gives $ 3.0 Billion dollars plus, plus, plus to Israel every year so that the occupation of Palestinian lands continues to make Arabs go bananas with fury.
There is a documentary called “Bombies” ..covers this very subject and it breaks your heart…the poor kids dig out these unexploded bombs so that they could go sell the metal for a meal…they blow up regularly.
Bill Maher recently talked about the latest craze…Bombing the Islamic countries constantly as a policy of the U.S.A. Once again, another secret war that is not secret at all but for the blinding the masses with propaganda.
I have this urge to tell any one who cares to listen…the people of the world do not hate the U.S. or its people…in fact they want to love the U.S. However, with all clandestine agendas of the U.S., it seems it does not want to be loved.
I apologise for being carried away. I meant very much to thank you for writing about this latest revelation about Cambodia…you have truly captured the essence of cruelty and nonchalance . You have spoken from your heart and By God, your efforts would do good to spread some empathy for the poor and the down trodden.
As the last time when I wrote, the Administration is at war again and the U.S. is on the brink of a shutdown…how sad to have such elected people in office pretending to do good for the people…unbelievably hypocritical and it is a time for people to rise against lies, greed, injustice..
When you are done travelling, Brad, you will make a good congressman…How about it? As they say, ” My Eyes HAVE Seen the world and its Humanity”
To Quote Mahatma Gandhi , ” You can be a minority of one, but the truth is the truth”
Ciao !! and God Speed.
Comment by mashoud on October 4, 2013 at 9:26 am
Hi you 3,
I’m following sometimes your adventures as I owned a 86′ vanagon 2wd turbodiesel here in France. And I’m very interested about setting it as a off road van like you.
Anyway just to tell you I and my wife we spent 5 months in Cambodia mainly in Phnom Penh. We lived in a flat just in the corner of Tuol Sleng museum (s 21).I remember the nights were so strange. But remember that places like are everywhere in Cambodia, in Kep as well.
Kep is an ancient french colony town as you can see avenues and abandonned villas.
Try to get to rabitt island unfortunatly without your van by paying a fisherman in Kep harbour. Time will really stop there.
Comment by SEBASTIEN on October 4, 2013 at 8:03 pm
God Bless you two, and watch over you. It’s heart wrenching to “read” what you saw, I can’t imagine how it felt to be there. Thanks for reminding us of this evil time. I’m attempting to send you some positive energy, hope you can feel it. Be well! Peace, Gill
Comment by Gill on October 4, 2013 at 8:20 pm
@Caitlin- nice to hear from you. By all means, use whichever photos you’d like. What good timing!
Comment by Brad on October 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm
@Sebastien, we did spend time in Kep (see blog post “The Cambodiwood Encounter.”) We really enjoyed our time in Kep, and did see some abandoned buildings. Didn’t make to the island though.
Comment by Brad on October 4, 2013 at 10:27 pm
Thanks for telling it like it is….
Comment by Jim Yaussy Albright on October 7, 2013 at 11:53 am
This is a great example why everyone needs to get out of their culture and comfort zone. Seeing things, especially painful things, from a more personal/local viewpoint is to me the reason to travel.
My hope is that for folks who can’t make trips like yours can at least read about it. My utopian dream is that the internet makes us all connected and responsible to the world for our actions.
Thanks for keeping up the great writing!
Comment by Paul on October 7, 2013 at 10:52 pm
[…] The Killing Fields (drivenachodrive.com) 2. The Killing Fields: The Genocide in Cambodia […]
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