When I set out for the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) in the ouskirts of Phnom Penh I knew what lay in store - a solemn reminder of the tragic past of a beautiful people. I had watched the documentaries and read about the history of the genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. But nothing, and I mean nothing will prepare you for the detailed documentation of mass murder at these two sites.
I set out by tuk-tuk in the late morning and headed out to the Killing Fields first. As you enter you're greeted by silence. I thought I understood it at first. But when I saw the monument up ahead filled with human skulls, I fell speechless. Wandering the surrounding area riddled with mass graves, I was testament to the sheer scale of this unimaginable bloodbath. What makes this uniquely awful was that the victims weren't shot or gassed. Their executions were primitive, slow and gruesome.
One grave had had the bodies of 450 people. Another one had the bodies of only women and children. And there is the tree. A tree against the trunk of which the heads of children and infants were smashed. The twisted thinking behind this was that murdering these children would stop them taking revenge for the deaths of their parents. Many victims were also forced to dig their own graves. I have never seen anything like this. And I hope I never see something like this again.
In the tuk-tuk on the way to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) I just sat quiet, watching the people who went about their daily chores. Most people in Cambodia smile if you smile at them. I'm sure most people know at least one person who was murdered during the genocide. It couldn't get worse than the Killing Fields, could it?. It did.
The Security Prison 21 (S-21) used to be the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, but the Khmer Rouge converted the classrooms into holding cells and torture chambers. The walls of the compound are laced with barbed wire. The rooms are musty and reek of death. Again, this is like no other prison or museum, because every person who passed through this prison was photographed and required to give an account of their lives.
Today, photographs of the people who were imprisoned here are displayed through several rooms. Men, women and children were all brutally tortured and executed. For what? An ideology. An ideology which wanted Cambodia to return to an agrarian utopia. The cost? The lives of over 2 million people.
Two million is just a number. And when such tragedies are reduced to a statistic, we sigh and shake our heads for awhile. But what do we really feel? Sadness? Pity? Two million is just a number. Two million families were affected. Two million lives cut short.
For an ideology.
The man who was in charge of the S-21 prison when the Khmer Rouge was in power was known as Comrade Duch. His real name is Kang Kek Iev (pronounced Kaing Guek Eav). He was responsible for the torture and death of most people who passed through the prison. In 2010 he was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried in a court of law. His sentence - 35 years in prison. Comrade Duch is the only former Khmer Rouge leader who is repentant. He begs forgiveness, but does not expect it.
Other leaders on trial haven't shown an ounce of remorse for the systematic slaughter of their own people. All for an ideology.
People say that man is innately good. Rubbish. Man is fundamentally evil. Evil courses through his veins from the time he is born. The Khmer Rouge is a glimpse into the deepest recesses of human nature. Nobody taught them to do what they did. But they went about their 'business' with ruthless efficiency.
Over 17,000 people passed through S-21. Seven survived. But then again, seventeen-thousand is just another number.
Click here for the pictures.