One of the darkest times in modern day history took place in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia. Promising the country peace after years of civil war and secret bombing campaigns from America, who were embattled in war with Vietnam, Cambodians flocked onto the streets to welcome soldiers during the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.
However, the promised peace never came, and residents were immediately rounded up and sent to the countryside as part of the communist regime’s plans to create an agrarian society. Personal possessions were confiscated, money abolished, family ties severed and the almighty Angkar set the brutal laws, which saw the population sent to work the land under appalling conditions.
Toul Sleng – S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh – was the main political prison, where suspected enemies of Angkar were sent. As Pol Pot and the top commanders’ paranoia spiralled so did the number of Cambodians detained at S-21. Once inside, prisoners were either tortured to death or sent to nearby Choeung Ek for “re-education” – execution. An estimated 12,273 were detained at S-21, with only seven known survivors.
Those sent to Choeung Ek made the 17-kilometre journey crammed into the back of trucks. Once there, many were blindfolded and, not wanting to waste bullets, soldiers smashed spades into their heads before pushing them in pits containing the dead bodies of thousands. It is thought about 17,000 men, women and children were executed at the site.
In 1980, the remains of almost 9,000 people were exhumed from the mass graves that litter the former orchard. Many of these skulls now sit in a memorial Stupa that was created in 1988 and forms the site’s centrepiece, serving as a stark reminder about the bitter past and to ensure the lives lost are never forgotten.