S-21 And The Killing Fields – A Reflection

Early on in our trip, we visited S-21(the Khmer Rouge’s main interrogation prison in Phnom Penh) and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields where most of those prisoners were sent to be killed. My fellow volunteer and new friend, Chris, wrote the following of her experience and I am posting it on her behalf…

Hello! My name is Christine Bitonti. I am a clinical social worker (mostly retired) and a member of the Insight Meditation Central Valley Sangha. This is Day 3 of our medical mission. We’ll be departing shortly for Takeo, a more rural southern province where we will set up the 6-day clinich with donated tents and, hopefully, a porta-potty or two!

Yesterday was a physically challenging (for me) day of sightseeing here in Phnom Penh. Today, I am reflecting on what I saw and felt as we were introduced to the experiences – past and present – of the Cambodian people.

I volunteered for this mission in part to honor my Cambodian-American friend, Pauline and her family, who have been so hospitable to me in Modesto. Pauline is a mental health professional as well, and the oldest of her sibling group. She was about 12 when her family fled the Khmer Rouge to a refugee camp in Thailand. While she doesn’t often speak of this tragic period, she is quite open about what happened to her and her family when asked. Now, I have seen some of the consequences of this sinister period of Cambodian history.

After touring the Royal Palace with tiled rooms and diamond-studded Buddhas, we entered Tuol Sleng – a former high school converted to a detention facility by te Khmer Rouge where nearly 20,000 prisoners were tortured into confessing to crimes they had never committed. We met Chum Mey (now 82), one of the only seven people to survive this experience – and only because his captors fled before killing him as the Vietnamese marched into Phnom Penh to liberate the country. The school-turned-prison is dark, gloomy, and bears macabre reminders of the atrocities – hundreds of pictures of the faces of those detained (taken by the Khmer Rouge themselves as they carefully documented their “mission”). There are also images of the bloated, decomposing bodies of detainees killed while shackled to their beds.

Most of the prisoners were taken to the Choeung Ek Killing Field where they lost their lives in the most barbaric ways. We visited this grim site where mass graves were later discovered and excavated. Now a few of the grave sites are enclosed with short bamboo fences on which hang thousands of Buddhist prayer beads and bracelets left by those who have come to honor the dead and – like our group – to pay homage to the brave Cambodian people.

Though depressing, Tuol Sleng and the Killing Field were important destinations during our day of introduction to the culture and history of these resilient people. I feel honored to be able to serve in whatever capacity I’m assigned.

– Chris


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