Cambodia: The Killing Fields

What are the Killing Fields?

Like most of you (probably), I didn’t know anything about Cambodia’s history until I visited. What I learned was horrifying. Pol Pot and his communist party, the Khmer Rouge, took control of Cambodia on 17 April 1975 by forcibly evicting all residents from Phnom Penh. They – along with the residents of all other major cities – were led to the countryside where they had to work in labour camps and collective farms. Due to overwork, malnutrition and poor medical care millions died.

As Pol Pot’s reign continued, he became increasingly paranoid. Anyone he considered a threat – spies, doctors, teachers, politicians, monks, and many more – was executed. They were taken to prison, where a confession would be extracted, and then buried in mass graves throughout the country. During Pol Pot’s 4 years in power, approximately a quarter of the Cambodian population died.

Choeung Ek

Today, the best known monument is built on top of one of the largest mass burial sites at Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh. We rented a tuk tuk for the day and visited. There’s a small entrance fee of about $6 and with it you get an audio device that guides you around the area. As most of the site was ripped down out of disgust upon first discovering it, the first few stops on the tour have you crowding around signs explaining what used to be there. There’s an eerie silence as everyone’s respectfully quiet.

The Dark and Gloomy Detention

The first sign is in place of the detention centre. Prisoners were usually killed upon arrival, however, as the number of victims increased, the guards could not keep up. Truck loads of people would pull up, blindfolded and restrained, and be detained for execution the following day. They were chained to the floor in a wooden barn, the walls two layers thick to keep out all light.

The Chemical Substances

The second sign is where the storage room stood, used to house DDT among other things. DDT was scattered over the victims’ bodies after execution and served two purposes: firstly, to mask the stench from the rotting corpses, and secondly, to ensure the deaths of those buried alive.

The Killing Tools

The final sign was contructed on top of the store room which housed any tools used for killing. Bullets were considered too valuable and expensive to be used to such a great extent. Instead, the prisoners were killed by beating or stabbing, using hatchets, knives, hoes, shovels, etc.

The Mass Graves

The path leads you through a field with grassy mounds, each one a grave. Areas have been fenced off and dug up, the amount of victims, often in the hundreds, tallied. One of the graves held the headless bodies of 166 men, thought to have been deserted soldiers. The terribly dark scene is lit up by the many bracelets visitors have tied to the fences.

The mass grave of 450 people
The mass grave of 450 people

The Killing Tree

To lessen the chance of revenge, the Khmer Rouge would often murder a victim’s family as well. This is the reason behind the very worst part of the tour; I’m not even sure I should write about it. A grave was uncovered with over 100 bodies of women and children. Next to the grave is a tree against which guards would beat the children. It was found covered in pieces of hair, skull and brain.

Rags and Bones

These haunting events happened so recently (within the last 40 years) that during heavy rainfall pieces of clothing and bone are still being brought to the surface. Colours of cloth are half buried in the dirt and we were asked not to step on them. There are piles of leg and arm bones, along with jaws and teeth. Around 5000 skulls have been collected at Choeung Ek alone and placed in a Buddhist memorial stupa, built 10 years after the event.

Skulls housed in the memorial stupa
Skulls housed in the memorial stupa

Tuol Sleng

Most of those brought to Choeung Ek were transported from the notorious Tuol Sleng or S-21. Once a high school, unskillfully turned into a secret prison, it sits in the heart of Phnom Penh. This was our second stop that day. Again, there’s a small entrance fee of about $2 and $5 for an audio guide.

Windows were barred, vents covered to block out all light, and the climbing frame had been used as gallows. Prisoners were brought here in order for a confession to be extracted. Tortured every day, they often confessed to crimes they had not committed to escape the horror. It was then that they were shipped to Choeung Ek.

Surrounded by barbed wire
Surrounded by barbed wire

The Cells

The first building you arrive at has been stripped back to house the museum. However, the second building has been left largely as it was found. The corridors, open on one side, are wrapped in barbed wire; a precausion taken after one prisoner jumped to his death. The classrooms, some still containing chalk boards, have been crudely split into tiny brick cells. The tiled floor highlights the dried blood only too well.

The crude cells
The crude cells

The third and final building houses the prison records – row upon row of photos of the victims. An estimated 30,000 inmates passed through S-21.

The Survivors

Of the thousands that entered only a handful survived. Different sources quote a number between seven and twelve. They were temporarily spared for their skills in engeneering or painting and were lucky to still be of use when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The survivors fled, leaving only eight prisoners to be found in S-21. Unfortunately they had been murdered mere hours before liberation. Their graves can now be seen in the courtyard.

The Result

I was so shocked to learn that there was genocide to rival the Holocaust that I had never even heard of. Even more so that it happened so recently. The country is still struggling as a result. I instantly bought “Survival in the Killing Fields”, a book written by a survivor of this time. It’s very detailed and informative; some of the chapters even come with warnings.

It would be wrong to say I enjoyed my day, but I would definitely recommend it. Such a huge part of Cambodia’s history, it would be wrong to visit and not go to the Killing Fields.

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