The Killing Fields

WARNING:

This article is not for the faint of heart. Travel is not always about tranquil beaches and fun hostels.

Sometimes, in order to appreciate another culture, you have to come to grips with the, sometimes, very dark history that shaped it. The only way I know to do justice to victims is to bring you my raw and unfiltered experience in the hopes that my retelling can move you half as much as I was moved by being there.

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First, a history lesson:

In the 1970's a communist faction called the Khmer Rouge started a genocide that claimed the lives of 2 million Cambodians, about 25% of the population. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, targeted intellectuals, artists, and urban dwellers with the goal of a communist, agrarian society. The genocide ended in 1979 but Cambodia is still home to the most landmines per capita and mass graves are still being found to this day.

There are many genocide museums and commemorative locations throughout Cambodia but none are so powerful as S-21, a Khmer Rouge prison. The prison is just on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Even from my tuk-tuk I could see that this place was going to make me upset. It had high, cement walls lined with barbed wire. The buildings were originally part of an elementary school but when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, they converted it into a prison. So you can imagine the creepy horror movie type scene that I was walking into, swing sets next to gravesites, monkey bars that were used for torture and children’s desks strewn about I the stairwells. The museum curators wanted to preserve the prison virtually how it was when they found it. They attempted to scrub out the bloodstains on the white tile floors of the mass detention rooms, but there are still dark spots that marked the final moments of a tortured life. Soon after we got there, one of my first Cambodian torrential downpours began. It seemed to sum up my experience and how I was feeling perfectly. The heavy rain caused the Champei (Plumeria) blossoms to fall from their trees and blanket the graves of the last 14 victims killed in the prison. I had an umbrella in my bag but couldn’t bring myself to use it as I traveled from building to building. I just kept thinking about how the prisoners kept in the 1x3 foot cells would give their right arms to feel the rain on their faces.

As you can tell this experience really affected me. I really did not want to walk through the fourth and final building of the prison but I forced myself by thinking, “if they had to go through it, I can view it.” My small mantra helped slightly but seeing pictures of all the faces of the prisoners and the young (sometimes 4 and 5 years old) officers of the prison just reaffirmed to me that the situation was never black and white. Most soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were forced or persuaded to join when they were under the age of 15.  The communist ideal caused officers to believe that only the young were untainted by the capitalist lifestyle and therefore were the only Cambodians that were innocent.

 

The next day, we continued our somber reflection at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. A 30-minute tuk-tuk ride outside the city brought us to a peaceful outdoor complex. It was a beautiful day with blue skies and a kind breeze. It was certainly a different environment than the S-21 prison but as I listened to the $1 audio tour, I soon had that same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wandered the grounds moving from number to number on the audio guide. I learned that prisoners from the prison in the city were taken here, blindfolded and beaten in the dead of night. The lucky ones were made to kneel on the side of large gravesites and were shot in the head. But as the bodies started stacking up and people in the neighboring areas started asking questions, the Khmer Rouge decided not to waste bullets on killing prisoners. They began killing people with machetes and when those got dull they used the razor sharp palm stalks to slit the prisoners throats. To mask the noise of screaming captives, they installed large speakers that blared communist rhetoric throughout the night. When there started to be too many people to kill in one night, they erected a holding facility. To make sure the bodies in the pits were dead and to prevent the mass graves from smelling too badly the soldiers covered the bodies in DDT, a powerful insecticide.

The next day, we continued our somber reflection at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. A 30-minute tuk-tuk ride outside the city brought us to a peaceful outdoor complex. It was a beautiful day with blue skies and a kind breeze. It was certainly a different environment than the S-21 prison but as I listened to the $1 audio tour, I soon had that same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wandered the grounds moving from number to number on the audio guide. I learned that prisoners from the prison in the city were taken here, blindfolded and beaten in the dead of night. The lucky ones were made to kneel on the side of large gravesites and were shot in the head. But as the bodies started stacking up and people in the neighboring areas started asking questions, the Khmer Rouge decided not to waste bullets on killing prisoners. They began killing people with machetes and when those got dull they used the razor sharp palm stalks to slit the prisoners throats. To mask the noise of screaming captives, they installed large speakers that blared communist rhetoric throughout the night. When there started to be too many people to kill in one night, they erected a holding facility. To make sure the bodies in the pits were dead and to prevent the mass graves from smelling too badly the soldiers covered the bodies in DDT, a powerful insecticide.

Now, the mass graves are shallow divots in the ground.  With each rainy season the landscape is changed and more bones find their way to the surface.  I highly recommend visiting this museum during the DRY season. There were several spots where the earth had opened and was soggy. My (literally) morbid curiosity caused me to look down every once in awhile to look for bones. I really wish I hadn’t. Something about seeing a human jaw, undiscovered, rise to the surface makes you feel like you are in a nightmare. Swallowing my lunch that made its way to the back of my throat, I continued to the killing tree. In the middle of the complex stands a large Chankiri tree covered in memorial tokens such as bracelets or ribbons. My audio guide informed me that the reason this tree is special is because it was the preferred killing instrument for infants. The Khmer Rouge justified killing children by saying that if they lived they would exact revenge for their families and turn against the state. The soldiers would rip babies from their mothers’ arms and sling them against this tree. When the site was found, a few months after the fall of the regime, skull fragments, hair and bits of brain tissue were found stuck to the bark. It was at this point that I was grateful that it was sunny outside. My sunglasses did a good job of hiding my tears.

 

The final stop on the tour was the Choeung Ek memorial stupa. A towering building that houses the recovered skulls of victims found in the fields. There are 7 layers filled with skulls, ages ranging from 13 to 82. The nature of the architecture of the stupa requires you to be pressed up against the glass cases of skulls that are sometimes open. I was brought face-to-face with the victims that died there. It was truly powerful.

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