The killing fields

posted in: Travel | 2

On our final day in Phnom Penh Pete and I visited the Killing Fields. I’d prevaricated about going but I’d visited Auschwitz and this couldn’t be any worse. For those who don’t know, the killing fields were places where perceived enemies of the communist party were taken to be killed. Cambodia’s communist party, known as the Khmer Rouge, was in power for nearly four years  from April 1975 to January 1979, when it was defeated by the Vietnamese army. In that time the regime was responsible for slaughtering up to two million of its own citizens.

It’s tempting to compare the Holocaust with what happened here but it’s different. The Holocaust was about eliminating a subset of people based on religion or ethnicity. The same can be said about the ‘ethnic’ cleansing in the Balkans, and in Rwanda. The events in Cambodia are more easily compared to Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and China’s cultural revolution. The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone with education or skills that could pose a threat to them – government officials from the previous regime, soldiers, teachers, students.

When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they wanted to impose a socialist agrarian state. Those living in the cities were forced into labour camps where hard physical labour and malnutrition led to many deaths. Others were taken to the killing fields to be executed.

Our bus took us to one of the many, many ‘killing fields’. As of 2009 the Cambodian government has mapped 23, 750 mass graves. They may well have found more in the last ten years. The one we visited, Choeung Ek, is close to the city and it has been set up as a memorial of what happened in that time.

On arrival your eyes are immediately drawn to the beautiful tower that dominates the site.

And yes, it is very beautiful. But then you take a closer look

The tower is full of skulls

People can go inside but this was close enough for me.

From here our local guide escorted us around the site, often using board walks built over mass graves.

Two or three times a month trucks arrived full of shackled and blindfolded prisoners. Families were separated. Often executions took place immediately.

If there were too many new arrivals to process immediately they were herded into unlit sheds to await their turn.

The chief executioner lived in relative luxury with electric light so that prisoner documentation could be filled in at night.

While the German concentration camps were well-oiled factories of death, the killing fields were much more hands-on. Prisoners had their throats cut or were murdered with pick axes. Children were brought here, too, probably the offspring of men and women who were to be killed. That way they wouldn’t need to deal with orphans.  It’s clear that prisoners were tortured. Who knows why? To implicate others? For fun?

Why beat a child against a tree? Those offerings were all brought by visitors. And in a mass grave where the remains of many children were found, people have tossed in money, grave goods for the victims.

It never ceases to astonish and disgust me how easily these murderous regimes recruit people to carry out their atrocities.

From the killing fields we were taken back to the city to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which had been one of many prisons set up by the Khmer Rouge. This site used to be a high school. We were not permitted to take photos in most of the rooms.

This photo gives some idea. Many of the classrooms were divided up into makeshift tiny cells where prisoners were incarcerated.

This article will tell you more about the place but let me quote one paragraph.

“From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21 (the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. Although the official reason for their arrest was “espionage”, these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners’ families were sometimes brought en masse to be interrogated and later executed at the Choeung Ek extermination center.”

Like the regimes in Russia and China – and, indeed, Vietnam – the communists targeted anyone with an education or skills who could become a threat to them. This wasn’t about ethnicity or religion – it was all about power. Prisoners were routinely tortured to extract information, especially to implicate other people in traitorous activities.

When we finished the tour we were introduced to a man who had actually survived his time at this awful place. He was selling his book. This article from the BBC tells a little of his story and shows photos we couldn’t take. Please take a look.

A commemorative sculpture inside the old school’s garden

Several of the rooms in the prison displayed black and white photos of the inmates, all long-dead. Perhaps their skulls are some of those in Choeung Ek’s tower. Men and women of all ages, some staring at the camera with defiance, some afraid, some hopeless. We were told more than one visitor had recognized a face, a relative who had disappeared without a trace.

It’s ironic that Vietnam, having only recently been reunited under a communist regime, should rescue the Cambodians from the murderous Khmer Rouge. Although some of the Khmer Rouge leaders were put on trial and convicted, Pol Pot was not. He died in 1998, apparently of heart failure, but possibly of suicide. Good riddance.

2 Responses

  1. Lorraine Chave

    The ‘Killing Fields’ leave a long long lasting memory on one don’t they?
    It is a hideous stain on this beautiful country….we will not forget the tree of bracelets….and learning that the young lads and on occasion young girls, were forced to kill their very young siblings at this tree…and those who refused were immediately murdered. We also recognised the photos of the 3 young New Zealand, Australian and British men who were murdered….we knew a family member. We too met that survivor, and what a lovely man! Did he tell you what happened to his first wife there? and his children? and how he met his second wife?…plus – he also told us of how very very few survived [all very young children] and how there are several current politicians who were guards in this ‘establishment’…?
    Its a testament to mans inhumanity to ma isn’t it?

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