Our tour of the Killing Fields was profoundly sad and terrifying. I will recount what we saw there but I must say up front that what you’ll read here will not be pleasant. It’s hard to write about such a heavy topic and will be hard to read it as well. I’m not being dramatic when I say that I cried while writing this.
I feel that spreading an awareness of these types of atrocities is important so I’ll try to be thorough, but you may want to skip this post and return when you feel up to it, or take some time to educate yourself on the time period in Cambodia between 1975 and 79 as I’m certainly not an expert on this topic.
First I’ll try to give a brief history to lay some context to the Killing Fields tour.
Rise of the Khmer Rouge
The United States had been fighting in Vietnam, using airstrikes and bombing during their campaign. With the proximity of Cambodia, some of this shelling was spilling over into the farmlands and towns in the outer regions bordering Vietnam. This pushed a lot of Cambodia’s population into the inner cities, such as the capital, Phnom Penh, to avoid residual effects of the war. People lost their homes, their livelihoods and family members. It was an unfair, unjust and undeserved result of the war and for many Cambodians it emboldened a great resentment of western foreign powers.
On April 15th, 1975 an armed military group called The Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh. People had no idea what was going on. They marched with signs of Revolution and started telling everyone to evacuate the city. They told the people that there would be bombings and they needed to get on buses and leave for the farmlands immediately. For many this seemed a sign of hope. In a matter of days the Khmer Rouge used this confusion to remove everyone from Phnom Penh and place them on buses out of the city.
It was all a lie. The Khmer Rouge destroyed banks, universities and hospitals in the city and left the place a ghost town.
Pol Pot was a school teacher. He left Cambodia to go study radio electronics in France. He didn’t finish his degree but during this time he became acquainted with the French Communist Party and began to foster a great admiration of the work of Chairman Mao in China. He started forming a new vision for Cambodia based off what he’d studied on Communism mixed with his own personal opinion. He despised the United States, it’s culture, it’s economics.
He wanted to give the country of Cambodia back to the hard laborers, the farmers, the people of the land. He called these the Old People. He felt that Cambodia needed to be cleansed of everyone else so that it could be purified. He wanted to erase class and economy and start again at Year Zero. These were some of the ideals he used to found the Khmer Rouge with a group of like-minded communists.
So when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on April 15th, 1975 the entire population was shipped out, categorized and divided based off of occupation. Farmers and the like were sent to labor camps to begin working the fields. Teachers, doctors, musicians, most everybody that was a city dweller, was sent to the killing fields or prison camps like S-21 to be tortured, forced to confess to crimes they never committed and then brutally executed.
And so in this manner, over the course of nearly 3 years, 3 million Cambodians were murdered out of the total population of 8 million. Imagine 1 in every 4 people you know being tortured and executed. That’s at least one person in almost every family and 25% of your friends. This is what Cambodia was going through only 40 years ago, imprinted in the memories of those lucky enough to survive it. It destroyed their country, set them back countless years of development and left the nation traumatized.
The Killing Fields
When we first walked into the Killing Fields it was quiet and peaceful. A large and beautiful Hindu Stupa stands in the middle of a grass field. There were people lighting incense and going inside as we approached it. But this wasn’t the start of the tour, the Stupa was for the end.
Many of the buildings I’ll describe aren’t on the site any longer. Once the killing fields were discovered the local population was too enraged to hold back and they tore the buildings apart.
The first stop was a truck stop. This is where confused and terrified, blindfolded prisoners were dropped off. They were either taken immediately to be executed or detained for torture. The point of the torture was to get the prisoner to confess to having ties to spies within the CIA or United States government. Of course, no one did, so they were just tortured until death or false confession and then executed afterwards.
The next area was called the Dark and Gloomy Detention. As more and more Cambodians were being rounded up by the Khmer Rouge and processed through torture prison facilities such as S-21, there soon became too many people to execute to get through in one day. Up to 300 people were being killed daily. So they built a detention building to house people overnight so they could kill them the following day.
One of the audio recordings was from a survivor describing the room as pitch black, you couldn’t see anyone else. The roof leaked and rain came through to muddy the ground. Rats and snakes came in, you could hear them, but you couldn’t see them and you were shackled and could do nothing about them. You could just hear the screaming of other prisoners being executed outside.
The executioners working office was next. This is where the executioners documented the prisoners killed here and filed their confessions. While most of the country had no power now thanks to the Khmer Rouge, this facility had multiple generators allowing them to sign and fill out the paper work and continue with executions through the night.
Next was the Chemical Substances Storage room. They kept DDT here to spread over the bodies to keep the stench down and to kill off any prisoners who were buried alive.
After this was a mass grave. The grave was covered by a thatched roof and it’s small fence was adorned with hundreds of colored bracelets that visitors had left as signs of respect and remembrance. There are 129 mass graves over 6 acres on the site.
While listening to the audio here I literally gasped out loud. While everything up to this point was already horrifying, something about this piece of information was particularly shocking.
When the site was found and the grave excavated they determined that none of the executions were performed with bullets. Bullets were too expensive. Everyone that was killed here was beaten and hacked apart by hammers, axes, crowbars and farm tools. Everyone.
Furthermore Pol Pot, and his comrade Duch who ran S-21, had gone into the countryside and handpicked from the population people who they thought represented purity. These were young and impressionable teenagers. They were the executioners. The ones murdering 1/4 of the population were children. Sometimes they would be responsible for executing their own friends or family members. Teenagers, brutally beating people to death with farm tools. Up to 300 a day. And that’s just here on this site.
There were numerous killing fields sites found throughout Cambodia and many are thought to be lost in the jungle or in landmine areas. These kids are now the same age or younger than some of our parents. Imagine if your parents had stories like these.
After the mass grave I was fairly shaken with everything I’d just learned in a not so long amount of time. I stopped the audio device to recollect myself. The surrounding area was peaceful and pretty. It used to be a farm and this site was a local Chinese graveyard. There were some crops coming up and chickens in a field.
A murky green pond was just passed the graves with a gazebo over the water. I decided to take a break and get some pictures.
When I was ready I put the audio back on and walked alongside the pond area. There were a number of survivor stories to listen to. I listened to every single one of them. They were terrible and hard to listen to. My eyes welled up several times. They were real stories from real survivors describing what they witnessed here. They would start in Khmer and then be translated to English, you could hear their voices in the background.
One was about a woman who arrived at the camp with her child. Her child was taken away and she was forced to watch it murdered and thrown in a grave (more on this later).
Another man was being kept in the dark and gloomy detention. He was being beaten and tortured every day. He was forced to eat excrement. At one point he was also forced to beat a child to death.
Another survivor tells a story of watching a woman get accosted by two men. He saw them cut her throat and beat her. This was over two bananas
Another witnessed a woman get raped and then bludgeoned to death.
One was from a child that was here at the time. He remembers having to come out and tell the executioners stories at one point of every day (I can’t remember what they called this). He would have to make up a story to entertain them. He would have to lie and to believe his own lies. If they didn’t like the stories they heard they would kill you. Another prisoner would plead with the guards to leave this kid alone and stop forcing him to lie. After several days of this the guards got annoyed with the man and killed him. But the kid survived and felt that this man had made a great sacrifice for him and will always remember him standing up for him.
After hearing the stories I continued along the main path of The Killing Fields. The next stop was another mass grave. This one was filled with headless bodies. They believe these to be Khmer Rouge soldiers who didn’t agree with the regime or their methodology. They were beheaded and thrown in this grave.
This sign reads “Don’t step on bone”.
Beside this site was an exhibit showing some of the rags of clothing from the victims. Some of them were woman and children’s clothes. This was a lead in to what I think was the single most shocking thing on the tour. The Killing Tree.
A single tree stood next to another mass grave. The grave was filled with the bodies of woman and children. Most of the bodies were naked, implying that the woman were raped before they were killed. Their children were killed in front of them. Pol Pot believed that even the children needed to be killed, lest they rise up against you in revenge later. The audio quoted Pol Pot, “To dig up the grass one must remove even the roots”.
The tree had hundreds of colorful bracelets hanging on it, similar to those adorning the mass graves. The audio described that when they first found this site the tree was covered in blood and bone fragments, scalp and hair. They didn’t realize why until they unearthed the grave to find babies and young children buried there.
The audio described that the woman prisoners who were brought here had their children taken away from them. Right in front of them, the executioners grabbed the kids around the ankles and, hanging upside-down, slammed them against the tree until they were dead, crushing their skulls. Then they threw the body into the pit. Teenagers were doing this. The woman were then also executed by a blow to the head from a farming tool and thrown into the grave as well. If they weren’t raped first…
Another tree was nearby. This was described as the Magic Tree although their wasn’t much magical about it. This is where loud speakers hung blaring revolutionary music and propaganda. This was thought to drown out the screams from the execution victims so as not to alarm people working in the areas nearby. It was near the Dark and Gloomy detention and the audio described in chilling detail how the sound of the music and the generators were so loud and it is all you ever heard, besides the death screams of other prisoners, until it was your turn to die. The audio then just left the music and the sound of a generator hauntingly drone on for a time asking you to try and put yourself in their place. This was a very effective and greatly disturbing thing to listen to.
The last stop was the Stupa. A monument built here to honor and remember the victims of the genocide. The Stupa is a Hindu structure. This one depicts the feathers of a golden Garuda, a mythical bird that is often seen as a mount for Vishnu. Also up the sides can be seen Naga scales. The Naga is a legendary serpent-like creature believed to have birthed the first of the Khmer race. While Garuda and Naga are often pictured in battles together, with both of them here, the Naga tails wrapping up into the Garuda features, it is a sign of peace.
The Stupa is filled with over 5000 human skulls found at the site here. Stacked to the ceiling, piles and piles of bones laid out in rows. Legends on the glass show the method used in the killing and the age of the victims. It was tight quarters in there and we slowly squeezed our way around the square room in silent recognition to the extent of the horrors here.
There was a small room with plaques summing up the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and their hugely negative impact on the country.
What a sad sad history. To have your country destroyed in secret by the deceit and lies of an evil, corrupt regime and their perversion of an ideal. So many of the people still alive today in Cambodia are affected by this and have memories of these times. It’s absolutely crazy to think about.
But they’ve been rebuilding, growing again, and to meet the happy and kind people here you wouldn’t think that this dark history could possibly have been within a generation. What else can a nation in trauma do but move forward again?
I think it’s important to know about these types of events, they can’t slide by without proper emphasis placed on them. And it makes you ask yourself how much you know about what’s really going on in places like Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, the list goes on.
It was a depressing and somber walk through the Killing Fields. The tuk tuk ride back to the hostel was a quiet, contemplative one.