Visiting the torture prison of a genocidal dictator is probably not at the top of most people’s holiday to-do list. It wasn’t at the top of mine either, but seeing S-21 firsthand helped to paint the most vivid portrait of Cambodia. It remains, to this day, one of the most paralyzing experiences of my entire life.
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the nation enjoyed three fleeting hours of freedom before the Khmer Rouge turned on its own people. Led by the murderous Pol Pot, the army took over Phnom Penh, and within days the entire capital had been forcibly deserted. S-21 (Security Prison Number 21) was set up in the heart of the stranded city, and it became one of the largest torture prisons in his regime.
As I walked through the blood-stained and corroded cell blocks, an image began to form. It must’ve been hell on earth. My guide for the day was a 27-year-old man called Lucky, so named because he was born just after the regime, and unlike his three older brothers, he survived. Lucky whispered about what had happened in this place.
Brainwashed children and teenagers ran the prison; their innocence long-since soured by forced cruelty. Most of them had already plumbed the depths of darkness by killing their own family. Mutilating strangers probably seemed effortless after that. Underage guards would lash prisoners with live electrical wire; they would rip fingernails out; they chained people to the floor in their cells, and when the communal bathroom bucket rusted through, they forced prisoners to lick off the ground whatever spilt out. Women were raped, repeatedly. Their breasts were sliced open, and guards would push live scorpions in the wounds.
Creative sadism seemed to be championed by the Khmer Rouge. The guards would take photographs of the victims both before and after their torture, proud mementos of their sick makeovers. Those photos now line the walls of the prison cells like a haunting roll call. Contemplating the unfathomable history at his feet, Lucky said, “My heart trembles”. That’s exactly how I felt.
Only seven people of an estimated 20,000 survived S-21, and as I was leaving I met one of them. Bou Meng sat quietly near the entrance gate. He was small, diminished and deeply wrinkled. Perhaps I imagined it after everything I’d just taken in, but I swear I’ve never seen so much despair in someone’s eyes. He was grief personified, and how could he be anything but? My heart trembled some more. I began to sob uncontrollably. Bou’s painting skills were his saving grace – the guards spared his life so that he could create portraits of Pol Pot. As if to deliberately dispel any misunderstandings Bou might have of leniency, the guards murdered his wife in front of him.He had paintings of her with him that day. And another painting of himself being tortured. His wrinkled hands shook as he pointed to them, but his glassy gaze was resolute. His entire generation was wiped out by the regime, and yet here he sat, at the wretched heart of it all. It almost knocked the air from my lungs. I wanted to heal him, to protect him, to take him as far away from that foul place as possible, but there is no changing the past.
On the bus from the prison to the killing field, Lucky told me that S-21 was just one of 150 similar prisons around Cambodia, and that the killing field I was about to visit was 1 of around 400 just like it.
It was a still, quiet place, lush and green, tranquil almost.
300 people were killed there every day. No one knows how many were killed in total. The ground underfoot crunches like a crisp autumn morning, but it’s not the sound of leaves; it’s bones – remnants of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Transported from S-21 by bus, naked and blindfolded. They were forced to kneel amongst the dead, and their skulls were beaten with whatever implement the guards fancied on the day.
Babies were the playthings of these guards (often just children themselves). Mothers were forced to watch their baby’s skulls smashed against the ‘beating tree’. Occasionally, guards would cut open those babies and eat their hearts. After the regime fell, when this killing field was first discovered, the roots of the ‘beating tree’ were littered with infant skeletons. Today this tree is covered with woven bracelets and prayer beads. A tall, narrow monument stands at the centre of the field. It’s an enormous glass-encased shelf, and from top-to-bottom it’s lined with skulls, thousands of unidentified victims, piled on top of each other.
Less than 40 years ago, Pol Pot wiped out millions of citizens. A conservative estimate is around 1.7 million people, but some say it’s closer to 3 million. That’s a quarter of Cambodia. As a result, more than a third of the population today is under the age of 15. Perhaps the most inconceivable element to the story – more so than the atrocities themselves – is how the country is healing. Most Cambodians over 55 are either mass-murderers or accomplices, and the vast majority walked free. The mostly-Buddhist public bears no bitterness towards them; instead they leave punishment up to karma. I’m still reeling at the magnitude of that kind of graciousness. It speaks volumes.
S-21 and the killing field were preserved exactly as they were found. They are blistering reminders of the unspeakable tragedies that occurred. They are the vile and dark stains on Cambodia’s past that can never be washed away.It’s conflicting to visit these places as an outsider. It felt at times like an intrusion into someone else’s still fresh suffering, and I had a lot of qualms about these being ‘tourist destinations’. Lucky, however, put me at ease when he explained why he wanted foreigners to continue to visit: “I’m grateful,” he said, “the world needs to know what happened here”.
*Words by Sophie Brown. Follow her on Twitter.