To keep you is no gain; to lose you is no loss. Khmer Rouge slogan
Choeung Ek | Darrin Henry
Today an unanticipated heavy weight of sadness has draped itself over my shoulders and lodged in my chest as the reality of man’s inhumanity to fellow man is conveyed in harrowing detail on this visit to the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
This is ‘Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre’ on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It represents one of the all too frequent dark periods in world history, this one between 1975-1979; in my lifetime. During these four years of awful civil war an estimated 1.7 million people were massacred.
This place of incredible tragedy has today been sensitively converted into a peaceful visitors’ centre and the disturbing story is retold; we are walking across the very ground where nearly 20,000 Cambodians were murdered. Even today, more than 35 years on, following periods of heavy rain, fragments of clothing and bones from victims will surface through the mud.
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake.” Khmer Rouge slogan
The 1984 British made film, ‘The Killing Fields’ brought a degree of awareness to what happened here, however, for many people around the world the extent of the true horror is only vaguely understood. It saddens me to say that included me before now.
The Killing Fields of Cambodia
I entered the main gate at Choeung Ek with no expectations and my limited knowledge of what it represented. The audio guides provided at the gate are a must; they enhance your understanding of the memorial. The audio guide is free, no deposit required. It contains 18 audio stories, supplemented by additional, optional information and survivors’ stories. Pausing, rewinding or skipping between different chapters is simple.
“To dig up grass one must remove even the roots.” Khmer Rouge slogan referring to the killing of children.
Allow an hour and a half, even two, (at least) for a meaningful visit.
The imposing Stupa dominates the grounds upon entering, but the audio guide directs you away, explaining the tall building will be the last stop.
The area is about six acres. It’s very peaceful with “keep quiet” signs at regular intervals. Visitors are encouraged to sit on the benches and stools and under trees to listen to certain parts of the commentary.
The first thing you learn on the tour is there wasn’t just one killing field in Cambodia, but many; hundreds in fact. They refer to the genocide that took place under the Khmer Rouge era, 1975-79, when leader Pol Pot ordered the killing of thousands of Cambodians who he perceived to be a threat to his regime.
“At night the music was played to cover up the screams of those being killed.” Ros Kosal, narrator
The Choeung Ek memorial contains 129 mass graves.
The visitors today were mostly all foreigners; all respectful and sombre as we walked slowly around the grounds.
The mass grave which had given up 166 headless bodies was very powerful. I measured the size of the grave at approximately 6m x 4m.
Looking up at the Stupa at the end of the tour the sight of rows and rows of human skulls encased in the glass tower, brought home the enormity of what had happened.
People; innocent, beautiful people were senselessly shot, hacked, bludgeoned, stabbed and beaten to death. These people, young and old, never stood a chance; their fate predetermined by their place and date of birth.
I am of that era, but unlike the thousands who were slaughtered, I exist today by the simple fortune of geography, being born on St Helena. It means I get to experience a world where I am privileged to write my own story.
Cambodia has been educational and humbling. I will leave with a greater appreciation of my own life and the opportunities and choices that have been my own. The sense of sadness I’ve seen in the faces on the streets of Phnom Penh may just be my imagination, but at risk of generalising, my visit today suggests perhaps not.
The Killing Fields of Cambodia at Choeung Ek is a powerful and moving and emotional experience.
“When you feel so isolated amongst your own people; even you speak the same language. It’s the most frightening moment in your life. You know, you can die of loneliness because you are not with your family.” Killing Fields survivor’s story on Choeung Ek audio guide