Toul Sleng and Choeung Ek

Memorial Stupa

From 1975 until 1979 the Khmer Rouge governed Cambodia, then known as the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. The communist government acquired control of the country on April 17, 1975 after a prolonged civil war. Early that morning the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, and within hours they began to evacuate the city. An entire population was moved to camps throughout the countryside, where they were forced to work in collectives. The country was nearly completely closed to the outside world. Rural subsistence agricultural workers were revered in the Khmer Rouge regime, while intellectuals, civil service workers, and later even Khmer Rouge themselves were targeted by the government. Throughout the nearly four years the Khmer Rouge held power, the regime maintained prisons where they questioned and tortured people for treasonous acts against the state that many never actually committed. The most famous of these prisons was S-21, now the Toul Sleng Museum.

Visiting Toul Sleng

During a national holiday a few weeks ago, I visited the Toul Sleng Museum. S-21 is located in the center of Phnom Penh. A collective of four three-story buildings, the compound was once a primary and secondary school. Classrooms were converted into cells; some rooms acted as individual cells and others were sub-divided with brick or wood into tiny slivers of space. Here, Khmer Rouge interrogators committed countless acts of torture, including the removal of finger and toenails, electrifying parts of the body, water-based torture, and others.  The goal was to cause prisoners to confess to conspiring against the government and working with the CIA or KGB. Many did confess, but it is likely that most only did so to stop the torture. An estimated 14,000 to 20,000 people taken to S-21 were killed. 

Visiting the museum is a powerful experience. Walking through former cells, seeing the faces of thousands of prisoners in grainy photographs, and standing before a wall of skulls extracted from the killing fields is more than enough to impress upon visitors the horrifying atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. However, information about the activities there and of the Khmer Rouge government is limited and often repeated, and left me wanting more. As such, this weekend I went to Choeung Ek.

The Killing Fields

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek is where prisoners from S-21 were taken to be executed. The site, located south of Phnom Penh, is one of many throughout the country known as the killing fields. In these places enemies of the Khmer Rouge, real and perceived, were killed and thrown one on top of the other into open pits.  

Little of the actual site remains except for depressions in the earth, the former graves of more than 10,000 people. Once quite deep, many have become mere shallow dips in the land due to soil erosion. The buildings that once comprised the compound were taken down in 1979.

Though Choeung Ek was isolated from the city, there were farmers living in the area. The Khmer Rouge spread DDT over the open graves to mask the smell, and revolutionary songs blared on speakers hung from a large tree at night to cover the screams of victims in order to prevent suspicion from arising.  

People were brought to Choeung Ek from S-21 at night, and, except when the volume of killings increased towards the end of the regime, they were immediately executed. Many of the largest graves are marked today with a low wall and a covered roof. Some of these were the burial sites of more than 100 people; given how small they appear, it seems unfathomable. One of these in particular was a grave for women and children. To this day, bones are still unearthed from the pits after heavy rains. A large memorial stupa now dominates the grounds. It houses seventeen layers of skulls and bones exhumed from the field behind it. 

As with the Toul Sleng Museum, Choeung Ek as a museum and memorial feels limited in its capacity to convey the horrors committed there. This is in part results from the nature of those horrors, but also may be due to the fact that, unlike some concentration camps in Europe, very little remains. For much of the tour, visitors walk from spot to spot along an open path where buildings once stood and read signs about what happened there. Though the audio guide effectively conveys information, and it is information that is terrifying to consider, there is a sense of detachment. That is, until the tour ends at the stupa. Standing in a narrow glass space, with a wall of bones rising high above, the thousands of cracked skulls with gaping holes, jaws with missing teeth, and cracked and hollowed bones from limbs are overwhelming. All of atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are palpable in the dismantled skeletons of those few thousand victims, a mere fraction of the people who died during the regime.