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The Killing Fields of Cambodia

The Killing Fields

Entrance to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre – The Killing Fields

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 Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

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.

 

Clothing fragment surfacing in the mud. Many of these areas are off limits for visitors.

Clothing fragment surfacing in the mud. Many of these areas are off limits for visitors.

Many victims throats were cut using sugar palm branches. The Khmer Rouge preferred not to "waste" a bullet.

Many victims throats were cut using the serrated edged sugar palm branches. The Khmer Rouge preferred not to “waste” a bullet.

The sign reads: "Magic Tree - The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed."

Music was played over a loudspeaker to drown out the cries of victims. The sign on the tree reads: “Magic Tree – The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.”

“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.

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.

The audio guides are very good.

The audio guides are very good.

Sitting with other visitors listening to the audio guides.

Sitting with other visitors listening to the audio guides.

Human bones that have been collected since 1980.

Human bones that have been collected since 1980.

“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.

The sign reads: "Killing tree against which executioners beat children."

Friendship bracelets cover the base of this tree. The sign reads: “Killing tree against which executioners beat children.” Children’s skulls were smashed against the tree, their bodies then thrown into the grave.

The signs are sobering.

The signs are sobering.

Rags of Victims' Clothes - After the mass graves were exhumed in 1980, these rags of victims' clothes surfaced after periods of rain. They were collected and placed in this display box. Many are clearly children's clothes.

Rags of Victims’ Clothes – After the mass graves were exhumed in 1980, these rags of victims’ clothes surfaced after periods of rain. They were collected and placed in this display box. Many are clearly children’s clothes.

“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.

The mass grave

In this tiny space 166 headless bodies were found.

The sign for the grave.

The sign on the grave.

Visitors have left friendship bracelets on the bamboo fence.

Visitors have left friendship bracelets on the bamboo fence.

One of the listening points on the tour route.

One of the listening points on the tour route.

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.

Inside the Stupa visitors come face to face with the skull remains.

Inside the Stupa visitors come face to face with the skull remains.

Human bones that have been collected, displayed inside the Stupa.

Human bones that have been collected, displayed inside the Stupa.

The Stupa which contains the human bones in a glass tower.

The Stupa which contains the human bones in a glass tower.  There are 10 levels and 9000 victims.

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 at Choeung Ek is a powerful and moving and emotional experience.

A painting in the museum.

A painting in the museum.

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

Resources:

World Without Genocide

Why The World Should Not Forget… – Washington Post

The Killing Fields film

Peace Pledge Union Information – Genocide

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