Tuol Sleng & The Killing Fields – Ghosts, Graves, Genocide

(**WARNING: Graphic, Long**)

Yesterday was an incredibly full day, with a trip to the Royal Palace, the Russian market, and a great deal of drinking in the evening. I wish to cover none of that, though the reason for drinking may become clear anyway. Yesterday, all of our emotional time was invested in two places – Choeng Ek Killing Field and Tuol Sleng (S-21) Secret Prison & Detention Center.

First, a little background. Alongside the Communist Revolutions occurring in some other Asian countries in the 60’s and 70’s, a quiet revolution took place in Cambodia – soon renamed Democratic Kampuchea. I call it quiet because the Khmer Rouge controlled the borders so tightly that little word got in or out after the coup was complete, until things started going badly wrong. It was certainly not quiet to those people inside the country. The “Center” reset the Cambodians to “Year Zero.” They emptied the cities on pain of death, forcing all urbanites to the countryside for labor. They killed anyone that they suspected might possibly cause a problem – and they killed that person’s entire extended family whenever possible to avoid revenge killings in the future (the “uproot grass – weed and root” policy). Everyone was issued one set of black clothing to labor in. Eating became communal, and starvation was widespread. Money, color, music, medicine, education (the doctors and teachers were killed), individualism – all were abolished under the new regime.

Many died during the coup; many more died through starvation and disease – but tens to hundreds of thousands were brutally murdered by Khmer Rouge hands. In the end, an estimated 1.5 million of the country’s beginning 3.5 million people were destroyed, directly due to the Khmer Rouge or their policies. A generation went missing.


Both Tuol Sleng (the interrogation, torture, and detention center) and Choeng Ek (site of unbelievable mass graves) shine an uncomfortable light on the methodical nature of death during Khmer Rouge rule. Both sites now stand preserved as a testament to genocide avoidance.

Tuol Sleng is the most chilling place I have ever seen. It is Silent Hill come to life. The hallways are eerily quiet. Black and white crime scene stills show the grisly murders that met the liberating Vietnamese army’s eyes when they arrived. Thousands of faces and profiles are mounted in never-ending rows filling an entire building – these are mugshots taken upon “processing” and “intake.” Their expressions are unforgettable. It is clear that most are aware of their imminent death. Many are women and children – even some infants. Of the over 20,000 souls shuttled through these barbed-wire doors, only 7 escaped with their lives. SEVEN.

Many died from a combination of torture, beatings, blood loss, starvation, and disease within the buildings of Tuol Sleng itself – previously a high school. One carving in the wall reads: “When this was a prison, no one learned. When this was a high school, no one died.” Another reads: “Hell is what you make of it.” Pictures do not do this place justice, and words even less. The very air is heavy. The stained walls are tired. There are echoes off heavy concrete. Visitors wander through in a daze. Few stay together with the groups they arrived. You cannot prepare for it.


On the higher floors, there was often only me. Rhys and I wandered separately. Walking through the tiny, wooden cells, I felt unusually claustrophobic, despairing, and absolutely terrified. If ghosts exist, then surely this place is watched. Being alone in such a place is visceral. The place has seen wrong, and your body knows it.

Those who did not die in Tuol Sleng, but who agreed under torture and duress to the ridiculous confessions written for them (did you know there were hundreds of thousands of CIA agents in Cambodia? I’m sure the CIA didn’t either) were then blindfolded and their hands were bound. They were trucked to Choeng Ek (or one of the countless other sites that accepted prisoners from not only Tuol Sleng, but the many other “security” centers). There they were rarely shot – ammunition had to be preserved. Instead they were beaten to death with bamboo sticks or metal ox-cart axles, or their throats were slit with farm blades, or their skulls were crushed with hoes. Whether or not they died instantly from the blows, the prisoners were pushed into the existing hole in front of them, sometimes holding up to 450 corpses (!). If they were not dead when they were pushed in, then they died amongst the dead shortly after. No one escaped. Infants were killed here too, in mass quantities, usually against the “Killing Tree.” Soldiers held their legs and bashed their heads against the trunk. Some other soldiers played games with them – launching them into the air to see who could spear the child first with a bayonet.

As only 80 of the 129 mass graves here have been excavated, no one is exactly sure of the total number of bodies. It is not a small number.


The skulls that have been exhumed are interred in a large, concrete stupa – a Buddhist holy building. There are seventeen levels of hundreds of skulls – it reaches beyond seeing into the shadows of the roof. At the upper reaches of sight, only the alternating white of sun-bleached bone and black, sad-looking orbital sockets can be seen.

Choeng Ek is also a silent place. The ground rises and falls in tides, but no moon moved that land. Evil moved that land.

The Vietnamese liberated Cambodia in 1985, though some insurrections had occurred before that year. The people were restored their country, and rebuilt as well as they could through the remainder of the 80’s and 90’s. Oddly, the United Nations continued to seat the Khmer Rouge as the leaders of Cambodia, and acknowledge Pol Pot as the “true” Cambodian leader until 1997 – insult upon injury for the surviving and the dead.

Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998. There are questions that will never be resolved – including questions concerning the circumstances of Pol Pot’s own death.

Many of the upper echelon were killed in Tuol Sleng as Pol Pot grew more paranoid and suspicious even of his own compatriots. Five high-ranking Khmer Rouge are captured and on trial/awaiting trial.

A few other points strike me as I consider what I have written and witnessed.

One – I’m glad that those with high rank have been tracked down – but death of that magnitude must have stained thousands of hands. How do those who won’t be caught live with what they’ve done? How do others live among them?

Two – this mostly occurred from 1975-1985. Most of us were alive then (though young). Still, this is ONE generation ago. No one did anything, until the Vietnamese finally had enough resources after the Vietnam War to go in and do something about it. The Western governments knew, the ASEAN countries knew, but no one considered it “our problem.” This was a genocidal holocaust a mere 40 years after the worst massacres under Hitler. Yet no one acted. Is our memory that short?

Three – Is this sort of atrocity happening somewhere today? Darfur? Tibet? Rwanda? What will we find? What will we be told? How do we prevent this?

And last – when will humanity stop committing these acts against ourselves?

About rhysfunk

Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981. In 2009, he sold everything he owned and left the country, living out of a backpack for ten months. He discovered a passion for photography while traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. After returning home, he looked at his home town and Oklahoma heritage with fresh eyes. When he began to explore his home state, Rhys turned his attention to historic Route 66. As he became familiar with the iconic highway, he began to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s place along the Mother Road. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. He has also driven many miles on rural Oklahoma highways to explore the fading Main Streets of our small towns. Rhys has a desire to find and share the unique qualities of the Sooner State with the rest of the world. Cloudless Lens Photography has been featured in several publications including This Land, Route 66 Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Inbound Asia Magazine, The Oklahoman, and the Tulsa World. Rhys loves to connect with people and share his experiences; ask him about enjoyable day trips from Tulsa, locations along Route 66, and good diners or burger joints along the way.
This entry was posted in Cambodia, Old Travelogue, Written by Indi. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tuol Sleng & The Killing Fields – Ghosts, Graves, Genocide

  1. LaughingOak says:

    Burma! And again the West and UN turn a blind eye. It makes me SICK!

  2. Lory Martin says:

    Stalin. Idi Amin. Rwanda. Somalia. the list is endless, as when one is conquered, two more seem to take his place. So very sad. our hearts cry out with the injustice and inhumanity.

  3. wow! but whats the answer???

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