Day 80 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The series of photographs below are from my visits to both the S-21 prison and the Killing fields, located in Phenom Penh, Cambodia. Some of the images and descriptions below are graphic and my comments are accurate to the best of my knowledge.

The Cambodian Genocide lasted from 1975 to 1979 and was the result of the Khmer Rouge Communist Party, who took power led by Pol Pot. The majority of the higher up positions in the party were held by Cambodians who were educated in Europe, while the bulk of the army was young, often 17 to 18-year-old farm boys, who were more or less brainwashed.

The Khmer Rouge removed private ownership of property or items, rid the country of a currency, and forced all those living in cities to go work on farms. Phenom Penh became a ghost city. On the farms, they were fed small amounts of rice twice daily and families were split up into female, male and child working camps.


Those who stood up to the party were arrested. Anyone who was seen to be educated or have any connection with the western world was also arrested and accused of conspiracy. If you spoke a second language, wore glasses, etc… you were arrested as a conspirator. The school in the photograph above (in central Phenom Penh) was converted into a prison and torture centre called S-21.

Over the 4 years of the Khmer Rouge rein, approximately 14,000 prisoners went through the S-21 prison, and were beaten, tortured and malnourished until they admitted to the crimes against the party that they were accused of. Once they finally admitted, they were taken away from the prison to one of the killing fields to die. Of the 14,000 prisoners who went through S-21, only 7 survived. The prison and killing field I visited were the largest, however there were many of them spread out over the country.


Throughout the genocide, approximately two million cambodians died by either overwork, starvation, or political execution, that is approximately 1 in 4 cambodians. The photograph above is of one of the rooms at the prison where the photos of those who passed through the prison, and were tortured and executed, are displayed. There is room after room of photographs on display. The Khmer Rouge took meticulous records and photographs which has allowed the families to learn what happened to their loved ones.


The above photograph shows one of the classrooms that was converted into individual wood cells. The classrooms were converted into either wood or brick cells, or remained as they were as mass holding cells.


In the mass holding cells 8-9 prisoners would be in the same long shackle all forced to lie side by side on the floor filling the room. Above is a pile of these shackles.


As the prison had 3 storeys, barbed wire and razor wire was installed along the open air corridors to prevent the prisoners from attempting to commit suicide.


The killing field I visited is located just outside of Phenom Penh. The photograph above shows some of the now excavated mass graves. Each hole in the ground contained several hundred bodies. To conserve ammunition, the prisoners were beaten to death, or chopped in the head with a machete or hammer.


The bamboo fences around the graves have become memorials where bracelets are left.


The tree in the photograph above is covered in memorial bracelets as well. This tree is known as the killing tree as when the site was found, it’s bark was covered in blood, hair, flesh and brains. The Khmer Rouge would kill the whole family of those accused of a political crime so that there was no chance for revenge, this included killing babies. Babies were held by their feet and swung head first at this tree until they died. The grave directly adjacent to this tree was full of mothers and babies. One of the Khmer Rouge slogans was “it’s better to kill an innocent man by mistake then to let a guilty man go free by mistake”.


A year after liberation from the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the Cambodian people made this particular killing field a place to educate cambodians and the world about the genocide in Cambodia, in the hopes that it will not be repeated anywhere else. The monument was built in the late 80’s to house the bones of those killed.


Inside the monument there are approximately 20 tiers, most of which hold the skulls of 8,000 of the 20,000 killed at this particular field.


These are the skulls of those depicted in the photographs lining the walls of the S-21 prison.

I decided to not sensor my post, as the Cambodians are attempting to bring everything that happened during the years from 1975-1979 to the surface, so that cambodians and the world never forget what happened here. The cambodians and UN have joined together and the generals of the Khmer Rouge are currently on trial for crimes against humanity and many other charges. Some of them have died in prison prior to the starting of the trials, including the leader Pol Pot.


There are many graves at this killing field that have not been excavated but have been chosen to remain un touched.