The Cambodian Genocide: Killing Fields and S21

It saddens me to no end to sit here and write this post. I'm upset to relive yet again the reality and history that plagues Cambodia. However, back in the 70's social media wasn't present. Seeing real-time images of what was going on in the world wasn't as easy as it is today. Textbooks in the US don't discuss it (at least mine didn't) and I think it's important for you all to know the horrific details of the Cambodian Genocide. 

Note: there are some horrific details which may be challenging to read. 

US Secret Bombing of Cambodia 

In 1969 the United States government dropped over 2.7 million tons of bombs on the countryside of Cambodia. They did this during the Vietnam War to wipe out the supply routes the Vietnamese had running through Laos and Cambodia. President Nixon was the one who authorized the attacks and kept this a secret from US congress until 1973. Over 500,000 farmers and their families lost their lives due to these bombings. Thousands of Cambodians had to flee their homes and move into cities to avoid being killed. Cities were covered with homeless, unemployed farmers and their families. Several more lost their lives from the displacement due to starvation and disease. The political unrest caused the Pol Pot Regime to be installed throughout the nation and Cambodians truly believed the regime to be the peace they so badly craved. 

Pol Pot Enters Phnom Penh 

Pol Pot built his regime by recruiting young, uneducated children who were traumatized by American bombings. They were promised a bright future, food, and steady job. In 1975 when the Khmer Regime communist party took over, they entered the streets of Phnom Penh and forced everyone to leave. Their campaign promised they could come back in three days and warned the Cambodian people of American bombings. If they didn't leave the city they were killed. Most left large supplies of food and personal belongings back in the city. They had no idea they would be forced into rural areas for years to work as slaves in the fields. Many died due to being overworked with little water, food, and medicine. They labored in the burning sun for 12+ hours a day. Modern machinery wasn't allowed to be used, only the hands of the Cambodian people. Many didn't know how to grow rice and other crops as they were from the city. When they failed at their job they would be beaten or killed. The Khmer regime wanted a society made of peasants. People were stripped of their money, land, religion, and names. Those who were educated, wore glasses, and had soft hands were sent off for execution.

S21 Prison

In the middle of Phnom Penh lies a school. When everyone was forced out of the city, the regime used the school as a prison, capturing anyone who they thought might be against the regime. Most of the prisoners were government officials, lawyers, doctors, monks, artists and their families. A total of 20K people died in this prison and only 12 survived. There were single cells used for interrogation and torture. The rules below had to be followed or one would be tortured for hours:

As stated in the prison.

  1. You must answer accordingly to my questions - don't turn them away
  2. Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don't be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect. 
  5. Don't tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting. 
  8. Don't make pretext about Kampuchea Kromin order to hide your secret or traitor. 
  9. If you don't follow allow the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire. 
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulation you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric charge. 

Gallows were used to hang people by their wrist and when finally passed out they would lower them head first into a bucket of human waste until they woke back up. Some rooms had 30+ people chained and bound together by metal ankle links. Some stayed in the prison for months only receiving a ration or two a day and maybe one shower a month. A shower would consist of a hose being blasted into a room full of people. 

When people came into the prison they were stripped of their name, given a number and records of their past life were documented. Any babies who came into the prison were instantly killed. 

Three young men from New Zealand were sailing around the world when a storm caused their boat to drift into Cambodian waters. They were captured and brought to S21, where they were tortured for two months, trying to get any kind of confession. They were unfortunately killed and burned. 

The Killing Fields

Over the four years Pol Pot was in power, 3 million people died. A quarter of his own army is included in that number as he was extremely paranoid they were creating a coup against him. Over 300 mass grave sites have been found all over Cambodia. Some of them are open to the public and memorialized and others are off limits due to undiscovered land mines. 

One of the largest fields is located south of Phnom Penh, where 129 mass graves have been found. 1975-97 trucks would pull up to the Killing Fields with people blindfolded and bound every couple weeks. By 1978, trucks would pull up everyday. They were told they were going to a different home and had no idea they were being driven to their grave. Once they arrived they had to sign a document, their death warrant. Detailed records were kept on each prisoner to make sure no one was missed. A teenage boy was recruited to be the one in charge of escorting prisoners from the truck to the grave. If he would have refused, he would have been killed himself. 

Loud revolutionary music would play from speakers hanging in the trees. They did this to cover the sound of cries and screams. Bullets were expensive and to keep the noise down so peasants close by wouldn't know what was happening they beat the individual over the back of the head with a hammer, ax, machete or anything else they had on hand. Sharp palm trees would be used to slit throats. Each person was stripped of their dignity and their clothes before they would die and be thrown into the massive grave. DDT was used to cover the bodies. This served two purposes, kill those who were still alive and to cover the stench. 

Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake
— Pol Pot

There is a specific grave where women and children were found. Babies and children were murdered in front of their mother's eyes. Held by their two legs and smashed their heads up against the tree. When the grave was discovered, remnants of hair, blood, and bodily fluids were found all over the tree shown below.

In 1979 Pol Pot and the Khmer regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese army and his own army who had turned against him. For more than 10 years after he was overthrown he and his communist party was still recognized by other countries as the leader of Cambodia, including the US, UK, China and many more. He was even given a seat at the UN and received financial aid while Cambodia was trying to put it's country back together.

Cambodia Today 

Those who survived the genocide are still deeply affected. Families are gone and it's very evident the people don't like to talk about the past. A lot of Cambodians believe the US had a lot to do with the Khmer regime coming into power. Although, all of the Cambodians have been extremely nice to me I often wonder if they hold a grudge against Americans. I notice every day while walking the streets of Phnom Penh how young the country is. Most individuals are under the age of 30. While attending a traditional art show they said: "We want to be known for the arts and not the Killing Fields." They're trying to rebuild still to this day, rebrand themselves and get back to the country they once were before US bombings, communist parties, civil wars and genocides. They've built the memorials so they can always remember and to ensure it never happens again. 


I was told I'd leave the S21 Genocide Museum and Killing Fields very somber. This was not at all true for me. I left pissed. Still, as I'm writing this post my blood boils. How we as individuals can let events like this happen is beyond me. Cambodians killing Cambodians. Religious groups killing religious groups. Kids shooting up kids. Why? All I could think about while walking the fields and prison was Syria. It may not be 3 million people but it's families, children, babies who are being affected by civil unrest every day. It's Americans who are too afraid to let those who need us into our country because we might let in a terrorist, when we have our own flesh and blood raping, molesting our children, shooting up schools and movie theaters, need I go on? I don't like to think about it as our country. This is our world. People who are no better than each of us need us and what makes me even more upset is the fact that I have no idea where to even start. How can I help? How can I even make a dent? How can we create change? How can American finally be great again, not for our own financial gains but great because we're a country that stands for the basic right to human life - regardless of age, race, sex, religion, and class. Will my children someday be visiting Syria and other countries, walking through a museum thinking "Why didn't we do anything about it?" Am I going to be an embarrassed mother who says "I was too busy fighting for gun control and human rights in our own country." 

One of my biggest challenges and struggles on this trip is something I should be extremely proud of. When people ask where I'm from I shy away from saying "America." It's true and I hate admitting it out loud. I'm sure I'll get a lot of people lashing out because of that statement and I honestly don't care. How did you feel while reading about the children and babies being killed in front of their mothers? How are innocent children being bombed in Syria any different, or children being shot up in your own country any different? There has to be a better way and quite frankly, America does not have it figured out. Everyone is too worried about their own personal interest until they're affected by tragedy. This breaks my heart. 

Learn More

I'm not a historian and there are a lot of details about the Genocide I missed or have yet to learn. If you'd like to learn more about the Genocide from the perspective of a survivor of S21, I highly recommend reading this book. I was able to meet this gentle soul at the museum. You can still see the sadness in his eyes but he smiles at each person who walks by and proudly puts his John Hancock in each book he sells. You can purchase the book here. 


The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide

But I do not condemn the people who tortured me. If they were still alive today and if they came to me, would I still be angry with them? No. Because they were not senior leaders and they were doing what they had to do at the time. I consider them victims like me.... There’s a saying in the Khmer language; “If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back. If you do, it means you are mad, too.
— Chum Mey, S21 Survivor