It was fitting that the day was grey. The place is called the “Killing Fields” so I guess you go into it with a pretty good idea of what you are going to see. You travel the same roads out of Phom Penh that the thousands of victims traveled from S-21 Prison, where they were tortured and beaten because of crimes they didn’t commit, except you’re riding in an open-air tuk-tuk in broad daylight, not blindfolded in the back of a crowded truck during the night. You get out of the vehicle and listen on your headset for the story of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and what went down at this remote and eery location only three and a half decades ago.
Here’s a clip from this website – http://worldgenocides.wikispaces.com/Summary+of+the+Cambodian+Genocide -to give some background:
The Cambodian genocide resulted from the years of 1975-1979, in which a great number of people lost their lives and it was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. The genocide was an attempt by Khmer Rouge army leader Pol Pot to form a Communist peasant farming society resulting in a great number of deaths by starvation, overwork and executions. Cambodia was once ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Later the country was taken over and controlled by Pol Pot, his army of Khmer Rouge, and teenage peasant guerrillas forming the Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia beginning in the capital city of Phnom Penh. His ideas were similar to Maozedong’s, a Chinese communist ruler in that Western culture, religion, foreign influences should be extinguished to form an extreme peasant communism. Foreigners would be expelled, embassies closed, foreign economic or medical assistance was refused, use of foreign languages banned, TV and newspapers were shut down, even money was forbidden, education halted, and thus Cambodia was sealed off from the rest of the world. Pol pot eliminated the old society which included the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Cambodians who were accustomed to city life were forced to work in the fields while many died of overworking long hours, malnutrition and disease. Anyone who was suspected to be disloyal to Pol Pot was killed. The vast majority of the victims included in the mass slaughtering and torturing are from Cambodia but also include people from Vietnam, Laos, India, Pakistan, UK, France, U.S.A, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and Muslims and Christians. Eventually In 2002 Australia, France, Japan, and the US passed a resolution calling for a tribunal of the senior members of the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity.
Over the course of three years, it is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed 3,300,000 people.
So by now, there is hopefully a point of reference and recognition coming from a high school or college class. I know I owe my knowledge to 10th grade genocide class and Mr. Boyde. A textbook chapter and an accompanying video don’t quite do the trick, though. One minute you are in a dark classroom watching a ton of people blind-folded in a single file line being led to their end and you’re definitely feeling pretty sad and beginning to hate mankind, but then the bell rings, the light switch turns up and you remember how hungry you are and thank god it’s lunch period. You may sit at the table picturing the looks on the faces of the Cambodian children as you eat, but by the time lacrosse practice rolls around, those images are wiped clean. Not much of a lasting impression.
There really is no way to give the full effect of an event to an outsider, but the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center does a good job of bringing you close to the stories and memories. When you arrive, you receive headphones and an audio device to walk you through the site. You begin where the prisoners began, at the truck stop, then move through the detainment space and the check-in area (the Khmer Rouge made sure to double check the whereabouts of each victim- there would be no escaping) and into the huge area of mass graves. Roped off are a few that still churn up bone fragments, teeth, and cloth. Other graves are indicated by divots in the earth.
All along, the audio is telling the story. For some reason, hearing the words from Cambodian accents directly into your ears makes it more real and personal. The marked-off mass graves are lined with bamboo fencing and thousands of bracelets hang on the posts as little symbols of respect and remembrance of the dead. It’s just the traveler finding a way to leave a piece of him/herself behind.
You then walk around the lake listening to stories of survivors, not of the killing fields, but of the S-21 prison. There were no survivors of the killing fields because if whatever murder tool the Khmer Rouge guards used for slaughtering (usually farming tools or hammers) didn’t accomplish its goal, DDT would finish the job. Individuals would kneel in front of the hole, blindfolded and forced to sing songs of the regime, before being hacked/beaten/stabbed to death and falling into their grave.
Children had another story. Yes, children. Pol Pot believed that in order to be successful in offing a “traitor,” the accused person’s whole family must also be killed, or else there would be someone left to seek revenge.
That’s where the “Killing Tree” comes in. This picture says more than a thousand words. After the tree, the infants, toddlers, and small children were thrown into the mass grave with their mothers. I placed my string bracelet on a piece of bark and walked away.
Well I think that’s about all I can handle writing about the Killing Fields. It wasn’t easy to see but it was well worth the experience. Not only did I gain knowledge of Cambodia’s history, but also endless respect for the people who lived through it.