S-21 the Cheuong Ek Killing Fields - a glimpse into Cambodia's dark history

As a kid, I remember hearing about the Khmer Rouge on the news, but I was too young to understand or care or what was going on at the time in Cambodia.

Visiting any country gives you the opportunity to learn more about it's people, culture and history, and a visit to the former security office 21 (or S-21) and Cheuong Killing fields in Phnom Penh, certainly gives a chilling, tragic insight into Cambodia's darkest days.

S-21, or what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is located in a suburban looking street in Phnom Penh, and was opened on August 19, 1979, when the Kampuchea People's Tribunal began the prosecution of "Democratic Kampuchea leaders" Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Khiev Samphorn - amongst others. The museum, a former school block, shows the cell blocks and torture rooms, where some 20,000 victims were killed between 1975 and 1978. This figure does not include children killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Imprisonment in the appalling conditions at S-21 lasted between two and four months for typical inmates such as Cambodian academics, doctors and teachers. Political prisoners were held captive for six to seven months before being killed.

The compound is surrounded by two rows of fencing, topped with dense barbed wire. Barbed wire was also laced across the balconies of the three floor, to stop inmates from jumping to their death. The cells were sparse, some having just a bed, while others had no bed at all. Some had an iron bucket or plastic water container, which was used as a portable bathroom, and the prisoners were fed tiny amounts of watery porridge each day.

It's hard to imagine how people lived each day in this hell hole. Our guide explained how a wooden pole in the yard, one used for physical education for students, was turned into an interrogation and torture machine. The interrogator tied both hands of the prisoner behind their back and lifted them upside down. This was repeated a number of times until the prison lost consciousness, then the interrogator would dunk the prisoner's head into a barrel of filthy water. This shocked the victim back into consciousness, and the interrogation continued.

Each victim was photographed and numbered as they entered the facility, which allowed for easy identification if anyone tried to escape. These photos now line the wall, as a tragic, permanent memorial for the victims of S-21.

Walking around S-21 is a confronting experience. You just feel so desperately sorry for everyone who passed through its gates believing that the Khmer Rouge were "taking care" of their houses for a "a few days".

With these grisley images in our minds, we headed out to the killing fields, where some 89 mass graves were found. As equally morbid as S-21, the walk around the Cheuong Ek Killing Fields, was near silent, and very reflective. Signs told us pretty much all we needed to know - the large huts were mass graves, where 450 bodies had been found, while the smaller indentations in the ground were smaller mass graves...

Recent flooding in Cambodia, and particularly out in this area, has resulted in bones and clothing of the victims buried here, rising to the surface. It was eerie to know that we were inadvertently walking over all of this...

A short video presentation provided more details about the atrocities committed by Pol Pot's regime. It's just truly difficult to imagine how - or why - a government would do that to its people.

As we drove back into town for lunch, I reflected on how lucky I am to live freely in Australia, and how resilient the Cambodian people are for pushing on, and re-building their country. It was an eye-opening morning, which I think left us all feeling pretty sombre and sad about what had gone on here in the 70's, but definitely worth a visit. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. I still don't understand how and why people can do such terrible things to one another :(

    Interesting read.

  2. such a sad time in history, thanks for sharing it Mel

  3. Cheers Neo.enviro and weiraigirl. It's shocking to think what people can do tom each other :(