All photos © Ruud Leeuw

Cambodia Killing Fields
The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1969–1975).
Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the Khmer Rouge-controlled state that, between 1975 and 1979, ruled Cambodia. It was founded when the Khmer Rouge forces defeated the Khmer Republic of Lon Nol, a puppet regime installed by the US.

Cambodia Killing Fields
Methods used for torturing and killing people were often primitive and crude; in more than one way it reminded me of medieval times.

Cambodia Killing Fields
Rules and regulations for the prisoners.
The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison's guards.


Cambodia Killing Fields
The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals.
Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Cham, Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution. As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as 'the Hitler of Cambodia' and 'a genocidal tyrant'.

Cambodia Killing Fields
This site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979.
Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country and it is estimated that as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed here.


Cambodia Killing Fields
Obviously 'laughing loudly' is frowned upon; then again, there is absolutely no reason to be light hearted about what is on display here.

Cambodia Killing Fields
From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners.

Cambodia Killing Fields
Cities were emptied (e.g. Phnom Penh was evacuated under the fake threat of expected bombardments by the US Air Force); people were set to work in fields and were told they would form a new society.
The Khmer Rouge was determined to turn the country into a nation of peasants in which the corruption and 'parasitism' of city life would be completely uprooted. Communalization was implemented by putting men, women and children to work in the fields, which disrupted family life.
They destroyed the legal and judicial structures of the Khmer Republic; there were no courts, judges, laws or trials in Democratic Kampuchea.
The Khmer Rouge were heavily influenced by Maoism, the French Communist Party and the writings of Marx and Lenin, as well as ideas of Khmer racial superiority


Cambodia Killing Fields
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated.

Cambodia Killing Fields
A UN investigation reported 2–3 million dead, while UNICEF estimated 3 million had been killed. Death often occurred during merciless torture.

Cambodia Killing Fields


Cambodia Killing Fields
Prisoners who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.

Cambodia Killing Fields
The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors.
Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags.


Cambodia Killing Fields
In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. The invasion, and subsequent liberation from Pol Pot's regime, was a reaction to the massacres committed by Pol Pot's army across the Vietnam border.
In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People's Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum, memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Cambodia Killing Fields
Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for 2 to 3 months. However, several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer.

Cambodia Killing Fields
Many of the school rooms were divided into crude cells, roughly built either from bricks and mortar or rough wood panels (below).

Cambodia Killing Fields
The administrative process and the equal sizes of the cells showed a fanatic sense for order.


Cambodia Killing Fields
The barbed wire was to prevent prisoners from jumping to their death.

The unhygienic living conditions in the prison caused skin diseases, lice, rashes, ringworm and other ailments. The prison's medical staffs were untrained and offered treatment only to sustain prisoners’ lives after they had been injured during interrogation.
When prisoners were taken from one place to another for interrogation, their faces were covered. Guards and prisoners were not allowed to converse. Moreover, within the prison, people who were in different groups were not allowed to have contact with one another.


Cambodia Killing Fields
Ieng Thirith (b.10Mar1932) was an influential figure in the Khmer Rouge, but was neither a member of the Khmer Rouge Standing Committee nor of the Central Committee. She was the wife of Ieng Sary, who was minister of foreign affairs of Democratic Kampuchea's Khmer Rouge regime; her sister was the first wife of Pol Pot.
Thirith lived with her husband, Ieng Sary, in a luxurious villa on Street 21, in southern Phnom Penh
She was the Minister of Social Action during the regime.
In nov.2007 she was arrested by the 'Extraordinary Chamber' in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in November 2007 with her husband, Ieng Sary as suspect of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The trials were ongoing in march 2013.
Her husband Ieng Sary died in Phnom Penh on 14Mar2013 (during our stay in Cambodia) at the age of 87, before the case against him could be brought to a verdict.
Their trials have dragged on due to defense tactics and a budget shortage.

UPDATE aug.2014: Khieu Samphan (the public face of the Khmer Rouge regime and former President of Democratic Kampuchea 1976-1979) and Nuon Chea (no.2 of the Pol Pot regime and steadvast in his denial of any guilt for the genocide up to this day, even in defence of the Pol Pot regime to this day) have been sentenced to life long imprisonment but they both will appeal).
The sentences were called on the accusation of mass deportation in support of an agrarian utopia; this is only part one for the tribunal, the second part (for which hearings have started) deal with the actual genocide accusations.
The tribunal has been slowed down due to corruption and obstacles put in place by the Cambodia's current Prime Minister Hun Sen, who (with several members of the current government) was a member of the Khmer Rouge.

UPDATE sep.2015: Ieng Thirith died on 22aug2015, aged 83. Her trial ceased in 2009, when it was found that she had Alzheimers in an advanced stage. She and her husband never admitted to any guilt in the genocide.

Cambodia Killing Fields

Cambodia Killing Fields
Cambodians visiting this museum can often relate to this horrid episode in a very direct way: many have lost close relatives and may not even know where and how parents, uncles, nieces, etc. have come to their sad demise.

Methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique.The most difficult prisoners were skinned alive.

Cambodia Killing Fields
Cabinets filled with human skulls.
In 1979 Ho Van Tay, a Vietnamese combat photographer, was the first journalist to document Tuol Sleng to the world. Van Tay and his colleagues followed the stench of rotting corpses to the gates of Tuol Sleng. The photos of Ho Van Tay documenting what he saw when he entered the site are exhibited in Tuol Sleng today.


Cambodia Killing Fields
Fortunately survivors have documented their experiences and observations too. Funds from these books help them build a new life.
It is shocking to realize that atrocities on a grand and even nation-wide scale is still possible in our time and the world's most powerful nations can decide to look away.


Cambodia Killing Fields
Choeung Ek is the site of a former orchard and became a mass grave for victims of the Khmer Rouge - killed between 1975 and 1979. It is located about 17 km south of Phnom Penh and is one of many (some claim 300+) 'Killing Fields' of Cambodia.
The executed were buried in mass graves.

Cambodia Killing Fields
In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Chankiri trees. The rationale was 'to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents' deaths.'

Cambodia Killing Fields
In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using poison, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. Even leaves of palm trees became a tool for killing prisoners: the sharp edges were used as a saw to cut throats with.

Cambodia Killing Fields
The moans of the victims will reverberate as a protest through history. The scars of this genocide will take many generations of Cambodians to heal and may never disappear entirely.

See also my page dedicated to this visit at my webpages.


Much of the above was learned from the following sources (as well as from our guide):




BANGKOK 3-2013, a start
BANGKOK 3-2013, the end





Page compiled/updated: 21-Apr-2013 / 15-Jan-2016