The Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields

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November 19th 2014
Published: November 24th 2014
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The Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields

Disclaimer: Though an account of actual history, some parts are violent and graphic

I must embarrassingly admit that I did not know what I was getting myself into when we were heading in our tuk tuk towards the killing fields, 14 km from town. I knew of Pol Pot and that he was a "bad man" and that there had been a genocide, but my sophomore year world history didn't bring to mind much more. We arrive at the gate, and after we purchase tickets we are given an audio headset guide and a small map. The fields is arranged in a circle with 18 stations, and there is an audio account for each station. It's hot, so we huddle in the shade from station to station, but I don't think any of us was prepared for what was in store. I had done a similar tour through Alcatraz, and I think the audio recording is a really intelligent way to make the tour personal and reflective while still accommodating many tourists.

The start of the recording states that a survivor of the Khmer Rouge is performing the narration. He asks for you to imagine a period in your country when 1 out of every 4 citizens are murdered. He states we are standing on one of the many places where prisoners were brought to be mass executed. They aim to use this horrific time in Cambodia history to hopefully educate the world as to what happened when everyone was too focused on the Vietnam war to open their eyes to the genocide in Cambodia. As knowledge is power, may understanding the pays can help to rebuild the country and prevent future atrocities.

Most of the stations are just signs posted in the ground. Most of the buildings were torn down and looted after the fall of the Pol Pot regime. The country was in such abject poverty that the people tore down the buildings to use the lumber and took whatever useful materials they could find. So one of the first stations speaks of the bus ride to the fields. A former soldier tells his account. They told the prisoners they were moving locations, or going to a farm to work. But most knew what was happening. And some were okay with it - they had suffered enough. Most came from a nearby school which had been converted into a prison. There are detailed accounts of every prisoner, similar to the Holocaust. You can visit the school as well and see the pictures of the victims.

Pol Pot studied education in France, which is ironic as teachers were often targeted by the soldiers. In hearing accounts of his rise to power, it is evident in hindsight that he was insane. He appealed to the common country man, the farm workers, saying that they needed to remember and embrace the roots of Cambodia, and that the new city generation was responsible for all that was bad in Cambodia. He targeted the urbanites - Professors, lawyers, doctors, those with glasses and "soft hands". Soldiers arrived in the towns and looted all the houses and took all the men away in trucks if they didn't just kill them on the spot. The men, and sometimes the women and children, were sent into slave labor. They were starved and often beaten to death if they didn't produce, or took more food than was allotted. Pol Pot set ridiculous and unachievable goals of rice production, so the guards drove the men and sometimes women and children to work at an unsustainable pace.

And for unclear reasons, the workers at certain labor fields or towns or prisons were sent to the killing fields on the busses. They usually spent one night and the next day they knelt in front of a large pit and were beaten to death while music played in the background to muffle the screams. They were not shot (bullets were too expensive) and they didn't not have gas chambers. They were beaten with sticks and garden equipment, necks were cut with serrated palm leaves. Then their bodies were stripped and tossed into a mass grave and sprinkled with DDT just in case there were any survivors. They are multiple pits scattered throughout the fields, seen as depressions in the ground. Some pits held over 400 bodies. Some pits held only women and children. One pit had 166 skulls after a mass beheading. At this point, most has been recovered, but there are still bones and teeth and pieces of clothing which surface and are excavated every few months. As you walk on the paths, you step over strips of clothing stuck in roots and emerging from the sand. There are a few accounts of the survivors on the audio player - women who were gang raped and then couldn't return home due to the shame; a mother who was so starved that she had no milk to breastfeed, so her infant died, a man who now has created many programs for survivors and Cambodian youth to help rebuild the broken nation.

The most atrocious site was the killing tree. The guards used the tree to kill babies by swinging them by the legs and bashing their heads into the tree trunk. A story so Horrific you hope it's exaggerated, but Guards have confirmed this happened and they have evidence of brain tissue in the bark.

The tour ends at a monument which houses the remains of the victims. There are rows of stacked skulls and bins of femora and long bones. It's chilling.

Although a tough and very emotional place to visit, I think this is crucial to any visit to Cambodia. It helps one to understand the community and culture and past of the Cambodian people. Cambodians are very skeptical of government and have a toughness which defines them. You can see it in the bodies of the old women who push heavy carts along the streets and in the young men on motorbikes weaving in and out of traffic at a hellacious pace. The current prime minister once stated that he would be prime minister until he died, and if he was ever voted out, he would start another civil war. There are rumors that the past election was rigged and they kept the current prime minister in house even though he lost just to prevent a war. The young generation doesn't remember the war torn country, but the older generation sure does. The Cambodian people have pride in their country, however, and they understand the need to protect and nurture it's future. I hope that this young generation can transform Cambodia into a stable and peaceful country.


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