Sunday, 19 March 2017

S-21 and Choeung Ek

We have been away in South East Asia recently, starting in Laos and finishing up in Cambodia. Both are lovely, beautiful countries with friendly, welcoming people. There is much to commend both of them to any traveller. We chose not to see Cambodia as an extension to our Vietnam trip a year or so ago in order to do justice to them both. This tour took us nearly three weeks.

With Cambodia there is some awkwardness to be addressed. Like a visit to Poland raises the question of visiting Auschwitz, so a visit to Cambodia raises the spectacle of the Killing Fields and how you are going to react to them.

The Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis is history to my generation (I'm in my late 50s). I do not recall when I first learnt about it. In many ways it has always been something I've been aware of. The Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge are something that happened in my life time, the details slowly emerging to disbelief and outrage.

The Cambodian leg of our tour ended with visits to the S-21 Interrogation Facility in Phnom Penn and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields associated with it.

Within our small group there was a discussion about whether it was appropriate to photograph either site, and whether such tourist-like acts are respectful. In the end I decided that I would take pictures, for two or three reasons.
  1. I was unlikely to be going back. If I wanted a photographic record, then it was now or never. If I changed my mind about having the pictures later I could always delete them.
  2. I was still thinking hard about it all as I was going round. I knew that I would only be fully able to get all of my thoughts straight if I wrote them down. From the minute we approached the gates of S-21, I was going to write a blog about it.
  3. Whether it is respectful or not the evidence needs to be shared, and shared regularly. If the evidence is kept in a dark, locked away place then it can be denied. Furthermore our understanding of the Cambodian Holocaust as well as the German Holocaust must be based on evidence and fact. If either become a matter of belief or faith then their existence can be denied.
S-21 was mostly used to interrogate and torture members of the Khmer Rouge who had been identified as traitors to the regime. It has to be remembered that the Khmer Rouge was not just a collection of fanatical communists, but included Cambodian nationalists who supported the King and wanted foreign intervention removed form their country. King Sihanouk backed the Khmer Rouge and became titular head of state when they seized power.  The US backing for a the Lon Nol regime who took power in  a coup, and the fall out from the way the Vietnam War was being waged drove Cambodians of a wide range of backgrounds to support the Khmer Rouge. Thus, initially, there may have been genuine reasons for suspicion, but after the initial batch of prisoners were forced to give the names of 10 collaborators then it became a terrible, deadly, macabre snowball of denunciations.

Terribly S-21 was set up in a school. It is hard to thing of a worse perversion of a building's intent, unless they had used a hospital.

The four school buildings were lettered A. B, C & D. The building above is building A. It contained relatively large rooms where inmates were held and tortured in order to obtain confessions and further names. Many of the camp guards were young, - probably in their late teens. Only the very young, without family ties, brought up within the Khmer Rouge could be trusted. They had no history before the revolution and so could be relied upon to show total loyalty.

This is building B, one of the detention blocks. As I understand it prisoners were not tortured in here, just held captive in their minuscule cells (see picture below). The arrangements were nothing if not practical. There was insufficient room to interrogate or torture people in these spaces, although the denial of space, light, and food and the rudimentary sanitary arrangements was all part of the process to break the prisoner's spirit.

The rooms in the lower levels have had the cells removed and now display board after board of photos of the prisoners held and tortured in S-21. These include the head shots you would expect as well as before and after photos of inmates being executed. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of who was taken to S-21, including height and weight to go with the pictorial record. They had a single typewriter, I think, and one of the survivors was kept alive as he was an engineer able to repair it.

All sorts of people were detained in S-21, including a few westerners, although as I said above this was mainly for Khmer Rouge members who were suspected of betraying the revolution. The principal criteria for being held was to be denounced by someone else who had been detained. The Cambodian Genocide was not primarily racially motivated, although ethnic groups do seem to have been exterminated, as it encompassed anyone who might challenge the self-sufficient agrarian model the Khmer Rouge were intending to impose upon Cambodia (known as "Year Zero"). As such teachers, engineers, and intellectuals (such as anyone who wore glasses) were not required by the new state and so had to be weeded out. The aim was that Cambodia would only need Cambodians to run it and it would rely entirely on resources within Cambodia. Those who didn't die in the Killing Fields were sent to the countryside to grow rice or construct canals by hand.

It is a chilling vision of where such thinking goes followed to its logical conclusion. This was not done in the heat of the moment. Unlike, for example, aspects of the genocide in former-Yugoslavia, where groups of men would go somewhere, round everyone up and shoot them, this was meticulously planned and carried out over a sustained period of time.

Clearly anyone sent to S-21 would soon lose hope. The Khmer Rouge allowed no form of escape, however, using barbed wire as anti-suicide netting.

The site was liberated by the Vietnamese when they invaded in 1978/9. It is interesting that we heard the view that all of this slaughter was conducted at the instigation of Vietnamese spies. It is a view that is quite hard to credit, and is probably more rooted in the history of the area than hard evidence. Of course, once the Vietnamese invaded we had the unseemly site of the US administration backing the legitimacy of the Khmer Rouge regime as they were fighting the Vietnamese.

When the Vietnamese got to the camp the guards killed their last 14 victims and then fled. The graves of this last 14 are in the square surrounded by the school blocks, as seen in the picture above. Not everyone died. There were seven adult survivors and three children

There is also a small monument as a reminder never to forget the deeds carried out here.

On most days two or three of the seven survivors can be found in the grounds of S-21. They have each co-operated in writing a small book about their experiences which they will autograph for you, and pose for a picture either with you or for you. Bou Meng joined the Khmer Rouge with his wife but was not a party member. He wanted to help restore the King. He earned his living as a commercial artist working for cinemas mostly. He left secure employment to go into the jungle to support the revolution, before being denounced as a CIA or KGB spy. After a period of torture and interrogation he was spared in order to paint pictures of Pol Pot. He was not the only artist so saved, - there were a few others who also painted as well as a sculptor. Alas his wife did not survive. He never saw her again, live or dead, from the day they were both taken to S-21 on the pretext that Bou Meng was being taken to teach at the Fine Arts School.

The other survivor when we visited was Chum Mey. He was the man who repaired the typewriter. I haven't read his book yet. Reading both of them back to back was a bit too much for me to stomach.

There isn't a lot else you can say, really. Most of the victims were not killed at S-21. Although they had a gallows it was for torture, not execution. Once the guards and interrogators were done with the inmates they were taken to Choeung Ek, a Killing Field outside Phnom Penn.

Choeung Ek was a  graveyard for the Chinese community, situated just outside Phnom Penn before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a place of mass execution. Prisoners were taken from S-21 at night, moved in the dark so no one, both prisoners and Phnom Penn residents, would know what was happening.

At Choeung Ek most executions were carried out by being hit by iron bars and the like, with throats being cut by rough edged palm leaves to be sure. This method saved bullets. Whilst this may have been the main reason it also had a couple of other effects. The sheer hands-on brutality of the process tied the killers even closer to the regime. There's no chance of aiming to miss, - either you are involved in the killings or it is clear you are not. It is also quieter. In any event loud music was played at the site to cover the sounds of screams. Covering gunfire is more difficult.

There are 129 mass graves, of which 86 have been excavated. From these nearly 9,000 bodies have been recovered out of probably in excess of 20,000. Buddhist beliefs make the disturbing of the dead even more problematic than would normally be the case, so the remaining graves have been left. This means that heavy rains bring new bones and clothing of the murdered to the surface every year. This makes the site even more chilling. Nothing has been neatly tidied away.

It is a place where you have no idea of how to react correctly. Lots of people leave offerings of various types. Our guide, a Buddhist, remarked that these were all pointless as they mean nothing for the spirit unless a priest has been involved. I expect that most are doing so because others have done so before them and it is doing something rather than nothing. If in anyway it assuages grief or makes the visitor feel better about themselves then it is wrong. You cannot come here and leave feeling better about yourself as a human being. This was an act of imaginable horror carried out by people like us. If you think it isn't, then you are both wrong and open to being manipulated by those who would have their way through fear and hatred. It starts with "We must/can rely on ourselves alone" and ends up with "Let's kill everyone else". This is nothing to do with the inevitable consequences of Communism or Socialism. It is all to do with hate and fear, driven by Nationalism. The Khmer Rouge regarded themselves as a National Liberation Army as well as Communist Revolutionaries.

Never were the words "No man is an island" more true. Each man's death diminishes us all, regardless of where they are from.

In the centre of the field is a monument, or as it is called locally, a stupa. It evokes the Cambodian style of temple building in its construction. The windows you can see facing you are mostly full, floor to ceiling, with skulls and other remains. I did not feel the need to go in it.

There is a museum on the site, but otherwise all the buildings have been removed. The store shed for the tools and weapons used to dispose of the prisoners and the chemical store where they kept the DDT used to mask the smell of the rotting corpses have gone.

On reflection this is even more disturbing than I imagined. I hadn't really considered that this is a horror perpetrated by my generation. As I said above many of the guards ween young, often teenagers. The same age I was when this was being done. Young people swept up in a belief at first that they were liberating their country and going on to do a greater good. Their idealism was perverted and they became trapped in a process where they had to carry out these crimes or become victims themselves. No doubt some enjoyed what they were doing, but all of them?

I was also struck by the organisation and thought that went into arranging all of this. I've suggested above that what was done here was not the work of white hot passion. Someone found a photographer. Someone found a typewriter. Someone found suitable premises. Someone had the buildings modified. Someone worked out the workflow from building to building and from room to room.

Someone arranged the transport to Choeung Ek. Someone arranged the slaughter in an efficient and effective manner. Someone ensured that neither sight, nor sound nor smell gave all of this away. The level of organisation and calculation is formidable.

As someone who has spent their life as an administration manager, who has worked and run many projects, the finger prints of someone like me are all over this. Someone was given a series of problems to solve with finite resources and did so. It is a terrible, terrible, chilling thought. Evil has to be organised.

And it wasn't just in Phnom Penn. It wasn't just a few individuals. Before coming to S-21 we had visited a Killing Field memorial near Battambang, in the grounds of a temple called Samroung Knong

This stupa-like monument was built through private donations both local and from Cambodian communities overseas. This is a minor Killing Field, and less organised than S-21 it would appear. They think about 10,000 people were killed, many pushed down a well afterwards.

As with the stupa at Choeung-Ek the monument has windows filled with skulls and other skeletal remains.

The monument stands on a base where concrete cast reliefs show what happened, from the rounding up, the sorting, the executions and the mass forced marriages. These type of reliefs are very much a Cambodian architectural feature, as the famous Wats and buildings at Angkor are covered in them.

A friend of mine who went to Bosnia with IFOR once remarked of the people that he had met, who had done terrible things, that "They had colour TVs and washing machines. They were just like us." In a few years they had reduced themselves to living in squalor, killing their neighbours. Whilst Cambodia in the 1970s was a poorer country than former Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 1990s they were still people with hopes and aspirations who lived in well ordered civilized communities.

Anyone who ever says "it couldn't happen here" is ignoring the world around them and has no imagination.

So that's why I took my pictures, and those are my thoughts, properly organised, for now.


  1. So, in a mirror reaction to that felt upon actually seeing the subject of this post, what does one say in response to the post itself? Any comment seems both redundant and inadequate.

    Anyway, a well crafted comment on the levels of organisation and determination required to achieve the horrific and the proximity, in all ways, of that horror to us all.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It is a hard subject to talk or write about without falling into cliche. It is important to reflect and remember, even tho' it is in a foreign land, far, far, away.

  2. A thoughtful Piece. Not comfortable reading.

    1. Not a comfortable visit either. One of the more jarring aspects of both visits is that both places have a peace and tranquillity under the shade of the trees that they have no right to have.

  3. Thanks Trebian... as long as we keep talking we may stand a chance of not repeating..

    1. Very wise words. As a very clever man once said "All we need to do is Keep Talking".

      Although I am always conscious of the maxim that for evil to succeed a good man only has to do nothing. I'm not sure what the actions of a good man could have done to have stopped this terrible steam roller of events. It is hard to conclude anything other than outside agency was required to save the Cambodians from themselves. Surprisingly the Vietnamese don't seem to get a lot of thanks.

  4. Provoking yet depressing travelogue. Not sure this place would be on my travel Bucket List. If it was, I may have crossed it off after reading your well crafted pictorial history.

    1. I don't think anyone goes to Cambodia to visit the Killing Fields. However, if you go to see Angkor Wat and the other wonders then you really can't leave with out visiting.

      And you should really go to see Angkor Wat.

  5. A good reflection Trebian, and I appreciate your thoughts on the cold reality of terror and banality of evil.
    I worked in Cambodia and other parts of the region in the late nineties. There was a big international effort to put back the infrastructure destroyed in the previous decades. Mainly roads and urban services, all very labour intensive with lots of training for youth that had missed out on learning useful technical skills in the chaos of Year Zero.
    Anti personnel mines were everywhere, fields, paths, abandoned villages, and the number of children with missing limbs was truly awful. A second horror for people trying to return to a normal life. Anyway your piece reminded me of the stories we heard from young trainees who remembered being marched out of their towns and villages as children in the seventies together with their parents (often professionals – teachers, doctors, engineers, administrators) and then returning alone 15 years later after Pol Pot was defeated. They had been able to adapt to the rigours of the agriculture labour camps, but their urban parents had mainly died from starvation or execution for failing to meet production norms. Cambodia experienced a true holocaust, which as you say could happen anywhere. Before the destabilisation of the region following the West’s fear of communist encroachment, Cambodia had been a stable , civilized and peaceful Buddhist kingdom for millennia.
    Of course it does not have to go that way. Its neighbour Vietnam emerged from the wars with its culture and traditions largely intact. A strong and resilient nation. Again I recall some middle aged Vietnamese road contractors reflecting on their youthful adventures as soldiers marching into Cambodia to “liberate the people from Pol Pot”. Although I concede that some may view that differently.
    None of the above should put people of visiting. A really interesting part of the world with an amazing history. And, as this is a wargaming blog – go and visit Dien Bien Phu! It has a good museum and the bunker where Castries made his last stand is still intact (or was 20 years ago).

    1. We went to Vietnam just over a year ago and loved it. Didn't get up to Dien Bien Phu. As you say, a country that has survived and now prospers. I felt that Cambodia really doesn't know where it is going.

      Whilst we were in Laos we were taken to COPE ( which was a sobering experience too.

      Thanks for your comments. Very interesting