S-21 - Death Camp
Similarly as with the temples near Siem Reap we had a tuk tuk take us to the locations and the driver would wait on us until we were ready to move on. In Siem Reap we had bought a book that was highly recommended to read called, 'First they killed my Father'. This book helped give us a fairly detailed insight into the Khmer Rouge take over of the country in 1974. The whole of Phnom Penh was evacuated being told that the US were on their way to bomb the city, in fact they were being spread out across the countryside where they would be forced to work in labour camps eating small rations of rice and salted fish, or children were to train in small army camps teaching them to fight and kill the Youns (derrogatory term for the Vietnamese).
This day tour would focus on the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge leaders resulting in the death of 4 million men, women, children and babies over a 5 year period. This place was a school turned prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. If you were suspected of plotting against the Khmer Rouge you were brought here to be tortured and your fate would either be eventual execution or sent to the killing fields and your fate was sealed there. It didn't take long for the Khmer Rouge to become a paranoid army. They killed anyone who was educated or associated with the previous government. If you were a doctor, nurse, teacher, solicitor, lawyer, politician, professor etc you and your family would surely be killed. Babies were killed so that they couldnt seek revenge on the Khmer Rouge in later life.
Upon arrival at S-21 we were greeted with a fairly horrific sight. A badly disfigured man was begging for money right next to our tuk tuk as we tried to disembark. Half his face had been severely burnt and the skin above his eye had melted over it sealing it shut for the remainder of his life. The skin was thin enough though so that you could see the bluey whiteness of the dead eye behind it. It must have seemed obvious that I quickly looked away so not to stare at the image that I have never been exposed to. Wanting to get past and I guess guiltily remove the nightmarish image from my sight I paid him a small 1,00 riel (25 cents). We have learnt that in Cambodia small donations are better because 1) if you want to give you can afford to give to a few people and 2) when beggers receive larger donations it can quite easily lift their spirits too much and they get their hopes up.
After paying our $2 entry fee each we started walking over to the first 3 storey tall building. Before reaching it however, we approached a big board with information about the area behind it. Behind lay 14 white boxes, before reading I could see that they resembled coffins. It turned out that buried here were the 14 bodies found within various rooms throughout the prison. The decomposition was at such a late stage that the bodies were unidentifiable so they were buried by officials shortly after being found.
The first building we visited contained these bodies. In each room that held a body a large photograph hung on the wall bearing the gruesome evidence of how the body was found. Also in the large room would lay a steel grid bed, the shackles which held the victim prisoner and a rusty tin box. All the items laid out on show are seen in the photograph on the wall. This was all that the large room of approx 6m x 8m held, nothing more was needed. After walking into a couple more rooms that looked identical to one another, only the position of the deceased different, we discovered that the rusty tin box was infact the device used to elecrify the prisoner.
When walking from the 1st building to the 2nd we passed a wooden aparatus that, when it was a school was used as a climbing rope, but in the hands of the barbaric Khmer Rouge was used as something completely different. By tying the hands of the prisoners, they tied the rope from the aparatus to their tied hands, and by giving the rope a few pulls could raise the prisoners offf the ground a few feet. Their next move would be to turn the prisoners upside down in the air, eventually they would lose consciousness. This loss of consciousness was part of the method though, as they would then lower their heads into filthy stagnant water to wake them back up. Pictures of this apparatus can be seen in our photo album.
As I mentioned the buildings were structured at 3 levels. One of the faces of the buildings had barbed wire covering it from the ground to the top. This was placed here to prevent prisoners from taking their own life and jumping, I guess the Khmer Rouge coudn't bare the idea of anyone taking life away but them. On the 1st and 2nd floor of this block, some changes had been made to the layout of the large rooms we had seen in the 1st building. Within the rooms they had built small closet size rooms out of bricks on the 1st floor and out of wood on the 2nd, standing inside them you immediately feel claustrophobic as there is barely enough room to lay down. As they now had about 20 miniature rooms in each of the large room (about 4 or 5 on each floor) you begin to get a sense of how crowded and lively this prison was, though only 14 bodies were found, hundreds possibly even thousands may have perished here. The true scale of death came to light in the next building where the rooms contained photographs on the walls and stay-up boards. The photo's were prison style with the person looking straight into the lens of the camera with a number hanging around their necks. Throughout the rooms there were hundreds of photos of men, women and children. All of them had ended up at S-21 or passed through on their way to the killing field. The Khmer Rouge had left plenty of documentation and photo evidence which support their crime of genocide. As well as looking at the haunting faces looking back at you through the image, I found myself asking whether they knew of what was coming, I hoped they didn't and that when it came, it was quick. Some of the photos were especially gruesome as they depicted the aftermath of their torture and interrogation.
One photograph in particular had left a firm print in my mind. The camera has taken a close-up shot of the deceased's face, or at least what was left of it. The main section of the face where there was once the mouth, nose and eyes had disappeared. Replacing these features was one bloody mess, it looked like someone had used the head as a bowl to scramble and mash tomatoes. The sides of the face you could make out the skin again, but where the skin meets the mashed tomatoes it was torn flesh in zig-zags down the side of the face, signs that this persons face was brutally hacked at with some sharp instrument.
After reading personal accounts and other information we headed back to our tuk tuk driver and in silence drove to the killing fields a few KM's outiside of Phnom Penh....