On 17 April 1975, after more than five years of civil war, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. People cheered as the soldiers marched the streets. But their joy was short lived. A new nation, Democratic Kampuchea, was founded. “Year zero” was declared, money, schools and religion were outlawed and the communist revolution began.
Two million Cambodians – more than a quarter of the population – were systematically killed during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign. Two instruments of this genocide, Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, have become the most iconic reminders of this brutal period in Cambodia’s history.
Prior to the revolution the corridors and grounds of the Tuol Savy Prey high school, located in central Phnom Penh, would have been filled with the sounds of children laughing and playing. Under the Khmer Rouge this school was converted to Security Prison 21 (S-21), Toul Sleng, the nations most notorious prison. After the place was filled with sounds of a much different sort. It was here that those deemed to be a threat to the “Angkar” (the organization) were interrogated and tortured.
How this threat was determined seems arbitrary and in most cases imagined. During the early stages of the regime, city dwellers and intellectuals were targeted: public servants, monks, academics, doctors, teachers and students. Something as trivial as wearing glasses, as it was assumed to be a sign of intelligence, was enough to sign a death sentence. After this racial prejudices came into play; pure Khmer were thought to have black hair, flat noses, full lips and dark skin. Anybody who didn’t fit this ideal – had Chinese, Vietnamese or any other foreign ancestry – were also targeted. In the final stages of regime, paranoia was so rampant that anybody and everybody, including Khmer Rouge soldiers and leaders, were implicated and executed.
It wasn’t just those directly implicated who were targeted; in most cases when one person was implicated their entire family including the children were also executed.
Toul Sleng consists of four, triple storey buildings surrounded by a double row iron fence topped with barbed wire. From a distance it looks like many of the other abandoned civic buildings that are scatted throughout the city but once you get close, even if you have no knowledge of its history, you can feel that this is a place where bad things happened. A morbid solemnity radiates from the walls; as though the despair experienced there was so great it couldn’t be forgotten, it penetrated the building itself, seeped into the stone, infected the ground. All the pain, agony and angst of the twenty thousand broken souls has infused the very essence of the place.
The front of each the buildings are covered with a net of barbed wired to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by leaping from the balconies. The ground floor classrooms of Buildings “B”, “C” and “D” were divided into tiny (0.8m x 2m) brick holding cells. The rooms on the first and second floors were used as group holding cells.
On the southern side sits Building “A”, the ground floor classrooms have been converted into a row of 6m x 4m rooms where prisoners were interrogated and tortured. Your flesh crawls the moment you step inside. A rusty single bed frame mounted with arm and leg irons stands in the centre of the room. The tiles beneath are stained with the blood of thousands broken on the rack. Despair drips from walls. A single photograph hangs on the wall documenting a moment more than thirty years prior when a broken and bloodied body lay chained to that very rack.
Prisoners were subjected to all methods of torture. They were beaten, water boarded, had electrodes attached to their genitals, their nails were pulled out using pliers and they were stretched on the rack. The frame from which the schoolyard swing once hung was transformed into an instrument of torture. A prisoner, hand bound behind their back, would be hoisted upside down over and over until they lost consciousness. They were then revived by dipping their heads into a drum of filthy water and the interrogation would continue.
In most cases imprisonment would last somewhere between two and four months with political prisoners often held longer. After that period of time the prisoner would have confessed to anything and everything as well as implicating everyone they had ever meet.
Just as disturbing was the fastidious detail with which every aspect of the interrogations and torture were recorded. Every prisoner – man, woman and child – was meticulously photographed, their personal history including family and acquaintances recorded alongside their confessions. Thousand upon thousand of files were discovered following the Khmer Rouge’s defeat.
Once the interrogation, torture and subsequent confessions had been completed the Toul Sleng prisoners were trucked fourteen kilometers to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Blindfolded with their hands bound behind their backs, they were led out onto the field. They were ordered to squat by the edge of an open ditch and, to save bullets, most were clubbed to death. A guard would take a hoe, axe or ox cart axle and smash in their head. Their throat was then slit using a palm knife. The lifeless body was kicked into the open mass grave. Chemicals were thrown over the bodies to mask the smell and finish off any unlikely survivors.
Any infants who were brought with the prisoners were taken by the ankles, swung and had their heads smashed in on the trunk of “the killing tree”, which grows in the centre of the field.
The open fields of Choeung Ek feel different to the buildings of Toul Sleng. No contaminated walls remain to hold in the horror and despair. Instead a profound sense of sorrow emanates from the ground.
A tall white stupa, a Buddhist monument to those who lost their lives at that place, dominates in the centre of the field. Encased in glass are thousands of skulls taken from the surrounding field and stacked one atop the other. In all, 129 mass graves have been identified at Choeung Ek. Eighty-six of these graves have been excavated and 8985 corpses were found. Thousands more remain buried beneath the ground.
The atrocities played out at Toul Sleng and Choeung Ek were so primal, so inhuman, so barbaric I found them almost beyond my comprehension. Stepping into the torture cells at Toul Sleng it took me an eternity to process the scene that lay in front of me. Finally realisation dawned on me. Acknowledgement of humans’ capacity for evil made my mind and body reel in horror. Sorrow flooded my soul.
The fact that other human beings are capable of such acts means that I too possess that potential. The humanity of every man, woman and child who has lived as well as those who are yet to live is diminished by the cold, calculated acts of inhuman brutality committed at Toul Sleng and Choeunk Ek.
Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeunk Ek were just two cogs in a nationwide apparatus established by a small group of deluded fanatics to purse a utopian fantasy. It is estimated that the genocide in Democratic Kampuchea produced 189 prisons, 380 killing fields and 19,403 mass graves.