Phnom Penh: S-21 & The Killing Fields

Featured photo by Olivia Brady

There is something absurdly difficult about standing in a room in which countless human beings were tortured 3 times a day; unimaginable pain, suffering and humiliation inflicted upon them by other members of their own race. And yet I feel in a way guilty for even finding this difficult, given the atrocities that took place here. Not one of us here can ever comprehend what these people went through and I hope that we are fortunate enough to never have to. 

The S-21, or Tuol Sleng, Museum was originally a high school, but was turned into the detention and torture centre known as Security Prison 1 (hence the name S-21) by Pol Pot’s army in 1975. Far from the children who used to roam the halls and play in the grassy courtyard, in the 3 years after its grotesque transformation, over 17,000 people were held here and then taken to the Killing Fields to be executed for their supposed crimes. The prison is now a commemorative museum aimed at paying respect to those who suffered, and to ensure that they are never forgotten. It is estimated that over 1.5 million people died as a result of the state-sponsored genocide under the communist Kmer Rouge regime, and the trauma of this is still felt throughout Cambodian culture. It is truly harrowing that anything like this was ever allowed to happen and I do not think that there are any words I could use to fully do justice to how awful it is that human beings can be capable of something such as this.

What is arguably even more distressing is that it was far from being the only instance of such atrocity in our history books, and this kind of brutality still festers within our world today. We need to learn lessons from these unthinkable events and find a way to rid ourselves of the extreme hatred, envy, fear and suspicion that fosters such violence and brutality, and ensure that we do not let isolationism and mistrust breed amongst our societies. We owe the many thousands of innocent people who suffered here that, at the very least. 

Photo by Olivia Brady: former class rooms were used to torture prisoners until they “confessed” to their crimes
The bodies of 14 people who were tortured to death were found when the prison was discovered in 1979; their graves and a large memorial now sit on the centre of the courtyard
Some former class rooms were divided into cells or mass-detention rooms in which large groups of prisoners were shackled to long iron bars
Photo by Olivia Brady: visitors lay their bracelets on wooden fences at The Killing Fields as an offering of respect to those who died here
In order to save money and resources, children and babies were often executed by hitting their heads against these trees – visitors also hang bracelets here to offer their respect


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