Khmer Killing Nightmare
I’ve seen a lot of amazing things so far on my 2-year trek. But the image that has stayed with me the most is my visit to Choeung Ek Memorial, known as Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
The image that sticks in my mind is the site of bones and bits of clothing poking through the mud. We had had heavy rains the night before and since more than half of the bodies – a full 9,000—have yet to be exhumed, the bones are starting to come up through the earth.
Can you imagine…walking on the dirt paths surrounding the memorial and stepping over large bones protruding from the ground. It was shocking. And disturbing. It still gives me nightmares.
Choeung Ek Memorial
My first morning in town, I hired a tuk tuk to take me to the infamous Killing Fields, located just outside of Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh. Once there, I hired a guide called Ouch to take me through the memorial. He was excellent and was able to answer my uninformed questions, like:
How could the Khmer Rouge kill all of the educated people in such a short time?
• Socially weaken: Once the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, the army said that the capital would be bombed and everyone needed to evacuate. So they separated all family and friend support systems, but relocating everyone to far-off provinces.
• Physically weaken: The country’s professionals were made to work in the fields. The monetary system was abolished so no one could buy food and the food was rationed out to the peasants first.
• Emotionally weaken: The Khmer Rouge then separated the parents and the children and started inducting the children with their “Year Zero” ideology: that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it.
The memorial itself has 17 tiers. Each tier houses a different type of bone: skulls, leg bones, jaw bones, etc. It gave me shivers to look up at the tower of bleached bones.
The Killing Tree
Estimates of how many the Khmer Rouge killed during their 4-year reign from 1975-1979, varies from 1.7 million to 3 million. But with only a population of 7 million at the time, whatever the number — it was devastating to the population.
There are 388 Killing Fields sites throughout the country. In the Choeung Ek alone, there are 129 mass graves, with an estimated 20,000 people killed there. The largest grave had 450 bodies.
And one of the graves had more than 100 women and children. Next that grave was a tall tree, nicknamed “The Killing Tree” since babies were killed by smashing their skulls against the trunk.
Many children were killed because the Khmer Rouge believed that “to cut the grass, you must remove the roots” – meaning, if there was a traitor, every member of the traitor’s family needed to be killed.
The Khmer Rouge used S-21, a former high school, as their chosen place of torture and interrogation (now official called the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum). The prison was known for its barbaric acts of torture; for instance, water boarding was routinely used.
In addition, the Khmer Rouge had a shortage of bullets, so most people were killed with improvised methods. What was most horrific is that they used everyday objects to inflict torture — an umbrella, a walking stick, farming tools. I’ll never look at those mundane objects again.
The prison was overseen by Kaing Guek Eav, aka “Duch,” who is the only person to be successfully tried by the UN for crimes against humanity and for the deaths of more than 15,000 Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime.
While touring the museum, I systematically went through every room to look at the photographed faces of the victims of torture, abuse and experimentation. The viewing was difficult to see. (By room #4 I was wondering how many more there were…answer: more than 20.) The photos of the guards who did the killing– so very very young – also made a heavy impression.
Why I Go
I feel it’s necessary to visit S-21 and the Killing Fields (and similar monuments in other countries) to truly understand Cambodia as a country, a culture and a people. It is a part of their past and to ignore or remain ignorant of these recent actions is to discredit the crimes that have been committed.
By looking at the victims’ faces, we can – at the very least — bear witness to the suffering endured by these innocent people.
For more information
- • Read David Chandler’s book “Voices of S-21.”
- • Write to the Toul Sleng Museum directly at: email@example.com
This entry was posted on Thursday, June 16th, 2011 and is filed under Asia Pacific.