Phnom Penh: S-21 and Killing Fields

Victims' skulls at the Killing Fields memorial
Victims’ skulls at the Killing Fields memorial


They come in the muggy night and disappear before dawn. Muffled voices down the hall, a brief scuffle, boots on the stained stairs and a swaying electric light—and that is all. That is the last you will see of him.


Your neighbor.


The skinny guy with glasses and yellow teeth, the one you knew used to work at the university.


Maybe you reported him.


Maybe you mentioned his loner behavior, his withdrawn glances, the way he hunched his shoulders over the key in the door, or the way he always opened and closed so quickly. Hiding something. He had books. You knew he had books.


And Education.


He had to have known it was coming.


It was just a few months before when everything had changed—when the glorious revolution swept through the sunny, salty streets of Phnom Penh. A mob of flip-flops and bare feet, rusty rifles and red bandanas, pick-axes and bamboo spears and a trail of blood stretching far out into the villages.


And the accusations with him.


No, wait. That will come later—later when the leader who never shows his face in public makes it a crime to have an education, to be ambitious, to think, to own. That’s when the suspicions begin, and when the silent gangs in the night visit the garlic and shadows of apartment blocks. The have-nots ganged up against the we-think-they-haves. The snotty guys with influence and resources and supposed ties to the West. The ones holding back the revolution.

A cell at S-21, a school turned interrogation block.
A cell at S-21, a school turned interrogation block.

That will come later. But now, it is the revolution—new hymns and red flags draped against the gathering clouds. A new name for an old nation. Khmer Rouge.


Days later, the capital has bled out its inhabitants. Your city lies a barren skeleton.


The buildings now are shells. Relocations. Rice fields. Irrigation. Dams. Public projects of the new order, Red Cambodia. Khmer Rouge. Labor is needed. Labor in the paddies and labor in the mountains and labor all the light of day—shovel in hand and no rice in the belly.


The new equality – the common right to pain. The right to die. The right to endure as long as you wish before giving in.


The city has been emptied. Ghosts wander the few lighted rooms. Gangs of henchmen wander dark alleys and dark boulevards. Some men smoke. Some are loud. Some watch quietly for your window light to turn out.

S-21 block
S-21 block

Welcome the new order.


The dead capital stares, vacant and cold, as thousands more disappear to the fields. It’s licking its wounds from Vietnam; it’s reeling from tragedies with easy media access; the last thing the world wants is another tropic bloodbath.


Meanwhile, the rice paddies yield bumper crops of bony corpses. Women stoop to poorly irrigated fields. Men claw feeble axes at the unyielding earth, reaching for channels for a greater good they know they will never see.


The cities are emptied. Your neighbor’s house is ghostly silent, though the door rocks open on its hinges.


Welcome to the new order, the brave new order of a life of equals.


Equal chance to starve and equal chance to die. Equal exposure to Red hymns blasted from tall speakers. Equality.


Welcome to the state ruled by mobs of pick-axe swingers.

the toilet at S-21
the toilet at S-21



Knock. Knock.


Simple as that—creaking hinges and an open door to plainclothes citizens. “Come with us,” they say. “Just a few questions.”


And that’s it.


Maybe there’s a scuffle, maybe a swing of a span of rebar. Cracked bones, concussion, a muffled spike of resistance, and that is it. A waiting truck in a back alley, a crude set of shackles, a bleeding, throbbing ride through the dark landfill of a the city, famished city of uneasy sleep.


Upon arrival, a bright light, a stiff chair and a camera lens: mugshot.


A thick room with a stained floor and mute walls that should speak horrors: interrogation. They know you’ve done it. Conspired with the others. Talked with the West. Hid money away. Spoken against the Khmer Rouge. Give five names and get a lighter sentence.


You hesitate. The fist strikes again.


Burst of blood-leaking pain. Dull aftermath of nausea.


Your head throbs. You taste blood. The light pierces your eyes. Five names.


Again the rebar.


Five names…


So you have children? Perhaps another visit to your home?

Haunting hallways
Haunting hallways

The officers, the guards, the torturers, they look just like you. No uniforms, no rank. Just citizens. But the eyes: notice the eyes. You see it in their eyes, the way they size up a stranger. In their shoulders, ready to strike. They look like you, but for the blood-lusty eyes.


S-21 is a school—or it once was. Row after row of identical rooms, bare walls, tile floors. One wing’s rooms are divided into tiny cells no bigger than a closet, dozens of men chained to the floor, to the wall. Stretched across a rusted bed frame.


Puss drips from pulsing wounds. Sun slants through slits in the boarded windows. Heat. Sweat. Stench of unwashed men. Flies flit and buzz; chained hands can’t to wave them away. Infections sting and burn. So many bodies crammed into the rooms. So much sweat, so much blood. Urine in the ammo box. Feces in the ammo box. More flies arrive. They procreate while stepping through the mushy puss of your wounds.


Pain in each man’s haunted eyes. Grunts and throbs into the night.


Sometimes you listen for what they do to the women in the other block. Screams. Or none.


Some of you will disappear.


It’s inevitable. A rumbling truck in the sleepless night, a number, a clank of shackles and locks, and another body gone.

The memorial at S-21
The memorial at S-21

In the fever heat of the morning, you watch the faces around you, wondering who spoke your name in the interrogation room. Wondering also whose name you called. And who they named. And you know, now again in the baking groan of midday, and burning infections’ gore, that you are merely one more link in a chain of agony. You are just one more body hobbling off toward the grave.


Maybe they will send for you in the night. Maybe the truck will haul your splintered, festering limbs out to the wide paddies to dig canals—twelve hours’ work with little rest, bleeding hand on the wooden shaft of the pick, watery porridge, moldy porridge, to sustain you. Maybe a small bowl of the innocent white rice.


You won’t last long. Too much cholera. Rampant malaria. Too few nutrients. Dengue or dysentery, no medicine nor sympathy—merely another body limping toward the grave. Fodder for the earth.


Maybe you’ll reach the killing field.


Maybe that’s the best.

a photo of rare survivors of S-21
a photo of rare survivors of S-21

A truck stopped in the night, always in the night, next to shed and shack. You wait. Crickets buzz, mosquitoes gorged heavy with your blood. You watch the milling men who will soon take your life. Which one will it be? You wonder, detached, curious, which one swing the machete to your skull.


You wonder if they are already divvying up the fresh batch.


You wonder if they get bored.


How will it come? You watch for guns. No sign of them. Not one. No one wears a uniform. Their only badge lies in their eyes, bloodlusty eyes, and in their hands. The look of practiced death.


They call roll.


You sign your name on the sweaty page.

The killing fields, 30 years later
The killing fields, 30 years later

Then the music starts. Speakers blaring Party chants into the night. Hymns of revolution, Red hymns. New hymns of the Red order, off communism’s crown jewel sparkling in the Khmer land.


You are shackled and thirsty in the night. You sweat and you watch the men stroll to the shack. Maybe they are smoking. They’ll start after cigarettes.


Hymns are deafening.


Mosquitoes land and suck. It doesn’t matter. Let your blood do someone good. All is silent against the drumming pulse of the speakers.


Bones of the deceased still come creeping from the earth
Bones of the deceased still come creeping from the earth

Trees here are large and their branches low. They cut the clouded skies from seeing. Stars offer no hope. Their shine lies flat as lifeless eyes.


The men are back with picks and hoes. A gardening knife. A bamboo rod. A thorny branch from a sugar palm.


A smell of blood and vomit stings your nostrils—you’re walking now, down a well-trod path toward the paddies. Darkness in the grove. The hymns of revolution hammer on through to the darkened sky. The guards are among you.


Then the light slams on. Blaring, blinding light from hidden sources. You stumble.

Site of a mass grave.
Site of a mass grave.

A man screams – shrill and panic and pain. It slices even through the Red hymns marching through the night. Then another shriek.


Your eyes are stinging. The music pulses on.


Screams swell under clouded sky. Panic courses through the crowd.


Now you see the crumpling bodies. Now the writhing ones in the dust. The screams are louder now, uniform. Your eyes are wild. They catch the glint of falling knife, of rebar rods, of saw-toothed sugar palm limbs.


You thought you would welcome this moment. Now, though, the animal panic. The adrenaline surge and the frenzy of the end.

Many people died right here.
Many people died right here.

Blood and shattered bones. Men spitting teeth and coughing blood between groans and screams.


And then it’s your turn to scream.


Crumpled in the fresh-dug pit, you writhe. Hot bodies land on you. Gore drips. Mixes. Squirming bony limbs all around. Splintered bones slicing through skin into others’ skin. Blood oozing, mingling in death. You know only burn and throb and coming black.


You won’t see or hear around the corner—where they take women to die.  You won’t know that all the bodies there are stripped naked.  Bodies stripped and hair shorn scalp-short.


You won’t know the tree, either, the one they use to brain the babies before tossing them into the pit the same. You won’t know that decades hence bits of tiny bones still stick into the bark.


You won’t know that heavy rains will soak your collective bodies, fester the boiling wounds in the earth, so that the putrid gases creak and heave from the sighing soil.


It gags on the blood it was forced to cover. The earth cries out for justice.


The stench will be loathsome, even years from now.

The infamous tree
The infamous tree

But now the music will blast in the night of an unhearing world. Still the screams will spike, and fade, and die, while the globe rolls heedlessly on.


Your bones, past years, past decades, will work up through the soil, will poke one timid day through the still-settling ground, as a tiny sprig, as a leafy tender shoot.


But it will not sprout. You will only bleach and wither.


You won’t know.


You won’t see, either, the tourist rise.

A collection of huan bones recovered from the topsoil.
A collection of human bones recovered from the topsoil.

The feet and the cameras, the tour bus in the flat asphalt parking lot, or the wiry man vending ice cream from red coolers. The tourists reach for their wallets, file past the gate where workers smoke and watch kickboxing on grainy TVs.


These visitors’ soles will tread the same trail that brought you to your end.


You won’t hear the audio tour that paces them through your last feeble steps on earth. They will scan the ground past the cordon, point to your shattered slice of bone poking from the earth. They will take a picture.


You won’t know the monuments, either, the tall, new edifice decked with dragons and garudas of the ancient heroes, in which lie the shattered skulls of your compatriots. The ones the earth could stomach no longer.


Fellow inmates. Fellow names called to the mugshot tensions and empty promise of reprieve.


You won’t see, generations hence, the Nikes stepping across the withered grass. You won’t know the new quiet that has replaced the screeching anthems in the terror night.


The visitors, in turn, are silent imagining, for a brief hour, the agony you bore. They will feel impotent to do anything but stop and listen.


And watch your bone creeping from the earth.

The Killing Fields Memorial -- filled with bones.
The Killing Fields Memorial.

2 thoughts on “Phnom Penh: S-21 and Killing Fields

  1. I still remember the day I was standing in front of the tree where they killed all babies and I cried. It was a terrifying thing that I could not imagine that something could happen. Reading your post and found tears in my eyes.
    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Yeah, that tree was definitely a hard one to come to. That episode sounds like something from a sadistic movie; it’s almost too gruesome to believe, until you find yourself standing right there where it actually happened.


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