As I’ve travelled I have, much to my embarassment, been constantly surprised by my own lack of knowledge. We were already in Japan when I registered the land was 90 percent hills; in Africa I would realise it was not all a dustbowl and could be pretty chilly; in Cambodia I would learn more of the extent of the misery, torture and power of the Khmer Rouge. Nothing will ever prepare you for visiting The Killing Fields.
Just outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia is an area called Choeung Ek. Nestled in among paddy fields, we rode down a bumpy, muddy track, passing children cycling to school and the usual hustle and bustle of village life. Our driver pulled in, under some trees and arranged to meet us there in two hours time. We had decided to visit what in essence was a scene of great brutality. Around 17, 000 people (men, women and children) were brought to this extermination camp from a prison, known as S-21, where they had already been held and tortured.
While much of the site infrastructure (waiting rooms, tool stores etc) have long since gone, mass graves are clearly marked and a chilling audio guide leads you around. Steadfast on a communist ideal whereby cities were destroyed and peasant farming and manual labour were the standards being set to bring equality to all the Khmer Rouge led a war of unimaginable proportions. Teachers, foreigners, anyone who spoke more than one language , those who spoke up against them, took rice or belongings from the collective pool or it seemed anyone even with a vague association to any of the former were simply removed. While the exact figure is unknown estimates are as high as 3.5 million deaths (half the population).
8595 bodies were exhumed at Choeung Ek in 1980 and as you wonder through what is now a quiet memorial site, clothing remnants, bones and teeth that continue to rise to the surface each year as rain disturbs the ground are displayed.
Thankfully those arriving at the site were unaware of their fate. They didn’t use bullets here but bludgeoned people to death and the audio guide played loud vitriolic songs that were blasted out alongside the noise of the generator to cover up the sounds of people screaming as they were killed. I couldn’t listen to the audio. They had done too good a job of stimulating the noise of the environment. One grave housed many bodies that had been beheaded – thought to be soildiers who had raised objections- and the site marked a tree where babies heads were thrashed before being discarded. Again, the audio was turned off. It was too much for me.
In 1988 the Memorial Stupa was built on the site. In essence, a narrow tower, ten stories high displaying the skulls and bones of some 8000 people.
I had not been sure whether to visit The Killing Fields. The War Museum in Saigon had also been vivid in it’s portrayal of the Vietnam War and I saw only enough there to understand. Nothing is masked here. I had been ignorant of the full extent of the torture Pol Pott had inflicted and while The Killing Fields was far from being a pleasant experience this is history I am now much more aware of.
Lest we forget.