The Killing Fields + S-21

Anthony Rae Photography Tuol Sleng S21 - 18

I haven’t really been sure how to write about this since I visited last month. Doesn’t feel right to ‘review’ something like this. I could reel off the history of the Khmer Rouge and the statistics regarding their atrocities. But it seems a little disingenuous of me to be relaying all that information on here, as if I am some sort of authority, given the fact that I visited the infamous Killing Fields in a state of relative ignorance.

Like many people who visit Cambodia, I’d made a slap-dash effort at informing myself of the places recent tragic history before I visited. I had heard of the Killing Fields and had a rough idea what had happened during the 1970s, but I knew nothing of the torture/detainment centre ‘S-21’. I had some sense of the weight of the events before I arrived and so it seemed sensible to at least get the sparknotes down. I was literally only finishing up the last podcast I’d been recommended as I arrived on the dusty entry road to Phnom Pehn.

Growing up where and when I did, I spent a lot of time during my education studying the Second World War. Perhaps a disproportionate amount of time, in retrospect. As such, I didn’t feel ashamed of my relative ignorance; a part of that is simply a product of my formal education. I felt, very consciously, like I was observing places like S-21 and the Killing Fields through that particular ‘UK History Syllabus circa. 2005’ lens which, somehow, made it more shocking than I had anticipated.

What disturbed me a lot was the allocation of resources during the whole genocide. Great care and expense was taken to thoroughly document and photograph each victim, though ammunition was considered too valuable to be used for executions and most were murdered brutally with whatever blunt objects were available.

S-21 has rooms filled entirely with the portrait photographs of those who had been captured for torture and, eventual, execution. In the fourth of such rooms I was struck by a single portrait of a man probably a similar age to me. Instead contrast to the solemn, knowing stares that surround his small remnant he wears a ridiculous beaming smile. I remember my stomach sinking as I saw this photograph. I wonder what was going through his head.

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