Apr 21 2008

The Killing Fields

Published by at 9:38 am under Cambodia

You are sitting in your apartment, making breakfast and reading the newspaper, about to head to your office. Suddenly, screaming armed soldiers storm in your front door. They force you to abandon your home and join the swarming crowds of people on the street. Everyone is forced to march. Where, you don’t know. You see people beat and killed for nothing—reluctance to walk, or showing signs of intelligence. You dress like a peasant and feign ignorance to protect yourself. Days later, you arrive at a commune, where you will work indefinitely. You have no idea if your family and friends are safe or alive. Most likely, you will never see your loved ones or your home again.

During the 1960s, an ultra-Communist insurgency movement began gaining momentum in remote Cambodia, aided by Viet Cong troops. Increasingly frustrated with American bombing of Vietnamese-controlled Cambodian countryside, the party had no trouble recruiting a large peasant army. They called themselves the Khmer Rouge and they were led by a man named Pol Pot.

A disclaimer: this is not a happy history. Ben and I witnessed graphic depictions of life, torture and death in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime. We chose to subject ourselves to it; you do not have to.

On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge troops stormed Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and Pol Pot became head of state. Art, religion, literature, and education were all abolished. The postal service ceased. Currency was eliminated. The year was declared Year Zero.

Pol Pot’s goal was to transform Cambodia into a radical “agrarian utopia.” He forced a mass exodus of all urban centers, marching the entire population out to the countryside to work on farming communes. Here they would labor, without enough food, separated from their families and homes, for the next four years. Of course, many of them would never make it out alive.

What Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge actually created was one of the cruelest genocidal regimes in history. They killed. You were killed if you were educated. If you’d traveled, or showed signs of Western influence. If you were smart. If you didn’t cooperate. If you objected or complained. If you ate too much food. If you spoke a foreign language. If your hands were too smooth. If you wore a wristwatch or eyeglasses. If you were suspected of wanting to escape. If you were deemed a traitor to the party.

Ben and I had come to Phnom Penh to experience two notorious vestiges of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime: the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison. We’d heard from other travelers that it was a difficult, emotional experience, but not wanting to shelter ourselves from the cruel realities of history, decided to make the visit.

That morning, we hired a moto driver to take us through the dusty Cambodian countryside to the Killing Fields (officially the Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center), an area of land outside of the city where a large number of Khmer Rouge executions occurred. Almost immediately upon passing the small ticket booth at the entrance, we were confronted by a shocking site: a giant glass tower, packed with skulls. This stupa, erected as a monument to the victims found buried here in mass graves, contains shelf upon shelf of skulls—more than 8000 in total. On the floor lies a pile of discarded clothing, heaped haphazardly, just as their owners had been forced to shed them before death.

Around the grounds, signs demarcate the former buildings and sites where atrocities occurred: this is where the prison once stood, in which victims awaited their imminent execution. Here was the chemical shed, where they kept chemicals they sprinkled over mass graves to dispel the smell (to prevent suspicion from the neighbors) and kill anyone who may have been buried alive. Here was the killing tools storage room (not wanting to waste bullets, the Khmer Rouge used other implements, such as axes, hammers, bamboo poles, and garden hoes, to kill most people). Here was a mass grave of 166 victims without heads. Here was a mass grave of naked women. Here is the tree against which executioners beat children.

As we walked around the fields, unsuccessfully trying to comprehend such horrors, we noticed we were surrounded by strange craters in the earth. It took us a moment to realize that these were the remnants of shallow mass graves. A posted map denoted the areas where mass graves have been exhumed, as well as the area – nearly twice as big – where they have not uncovered the graves. So most of the victims’ remains are still underground, unknown, a jumble of bones.

From time to time, we were approached by groups of Cambodian children. They’d engage you in conversation for a while, as best they could, before asking you for money. “Just a dollar, mister,” they’d say, “for us to share.” Or, “for food” and “for school.”

It’s hard, but you have to say no. There are so many reasons for tourists not to give money to begging children; in fact, advertisements around Phnom Penh implore tourists not to.

The presence of these children makes the experience all the more heart breaking. This is a country ravaged by war, and the effects of Pol Pot’s reign are felt thirty years later. These people still live in severe poverty.

A moto driver took us to our next stop in the city, the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum. In 1975, Pol Pot’s security forces took over a high school in Phnom Penh, converting it into Security Prison 21 (S-21), also known as Tuol Sleng Prison. S-21 soon became the largest center for detention and torture in the country. At its peak, over 100 people died there per day. Some died while being tortured, others from malnutrition or disease. Even more were sent to Cheoung Ek for termination. Less than a dozen of the 14,000 people sent to Tuol Sleng survived.

What first struck me upon entering the complex is that it looks disarmingly like a high school. You can imagine students sitting behind desks aligned in rows on the checkered floor. Or students walking through the courtyard to make it to their next class. In fact, Ben pointed out that it was strikingly similar to our university’s dorms, which made the experience all the more disturbing.

Larger rooms of the high school were crudely divided into tiny, dark prison cells – so small Ben and I could hardly fit through the doors. The chains that had held the inmates remain attached to the wall. Rusty torture devices, such as whips or electrocution boxes, remain strewn on the floor. A layer of thick, twisted barbed wire cover the fronts of the buildings to prevent escape or suicide.

Other rooms of the Tuol Sleng Museum have been converted into galleries. Several rooms display the inmates’ mug shots. Others display pictures of the inmates as they lay tortured and dying. One gallery contained posted interviews with survivors of the regime, telling their story of survival, or the story of a family member who was not so lucky.

Another room contains artistic depictions of the various methods of torture and murder the Khmer Rouge employed. Pictures of water boarding, victims being covered with poisonous insects or having body parts removed. One particularly disturbing painting depicted a Khmer Rouge soldier ripping an infant from his mother’s arms by the ankle and flinging its body against a tree.

In 1979, the Vietnamese marched into Cambodia, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in about two weeks. Pol Pot lived in exile until 1998, when he died of “natural causes” on the very day the UN announced he would be held accountable for his crimes.

No one is exactly sure how many people died under Pol Pot, although 1.5 million, or about 25% of the Cambodian population, is a conservative estimate.

The Cambodian people have come a long way since the Khmer Rouge, but Cambodia continues to be fraught with corruption and poverty. Ninety-five percent of the population remains in the countryside, too impoverished to seek a better life. Nor are they unaware that the current president is a deeply corrupt, former Khmer Rouge officer.

After walking through the museum, we sat for a while in the courtyard, trying to process what we’d seen. I am unable to convey in words how heart wrenching and emotional it is to visit these sites. Simply reliving my experience in order to write this blog entry has brought back the tears. It’s impossible to comprehend the depths of evil people are capable of. Nor do I attempt to understand why such horrors occur. And how some people, like myself, can be so fortunate, while others suffer horrible fates, for no reason other than the random location of their birth.

The only thing that kept me from sinking into complete despair was the museum guestbook that people from across the globe had signed with messages of sympathy, hope, and assurance.

If you’d like to see pictures of our experience, visit our Flickr page.

NEXT: Things I Learned During My Cambodian Village Homestay »



2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The Killing Fields”

  1. Suzon 21 Apr 2008 at 12:59 pm

    Thanks for the moving description, the informative history and the interesting new look at a time I didn’t know much about.

  2. Sciencemelon 23 Apr 2008 at 7:38 am


    I could sense the tension in your writing, but thank you for sharing the atrocities you witnessed. I, like you, find it incredibly difficult to comprehend how humanity can be so cruel at times. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t destined to repeat these incidents as history is rarely taught properly these days.


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