A Visit to the Killing Fields Near Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia, Feature, Travelogue — By on January 22, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Sadly this was not the only site, but the most active.  A few kilometers south of the city of Phnom Penh lay the killing fields of Choeung Ek.   The numbers are disputed but by time the Vietnamese invaded, between one and a half and three million people had been killed, one in five Cambodians.  They were considered to be internal enemies and were executed, brutally I might add, under the Khmer Rouge with Pol Pot at the helm.  Upon entering you are standing in the shadow of a tower, as high as the sky it seems, full of human skulls.  At the base of the tower is a pile of clothing worn by the deceased.  None of the skulls contain bullet holes.  The men and women were executed with axes, poisonous acid, hammers and ox cart axels.  It does not take much of an imagination to envision the horrors of busloads, 300 at a time, of doomed citizens.  A defoliant agent was sprayed over the bodies to mask the smell of the mass graves from neighboring factories and labor camps, and also to end anyone not quite dead.  The mass graves were often dug by the prisoners themselves, and not very deep.  A tree on the grounds once bore a loud speaker to play music at high volume in order to drown out the moans, while another nearby tree was used to beat the heads of small children and infants against.  This is a field with endless pits of excavated and exhumed mass graves that resemble small craters, about eight feet deep, with sign posts indicating “400 bodies found here”, or “120 headless female bodies found here.”  The pathways have bits of clothing coming out of the ground, there are bone fragments and human teeth still scattered about and are very noticeable.  As I stared at the infamous ‘tree’ a nearby school let out for recess and the still air was temporarily filled with happy banter and chaos of children playing, quite a contrast but an encouraging one, one of survival.  The next generation is emerging.  The tree is alive and stands tall even though it absorbed the blood of so many young lives, it is a symbol of perseverance.  The nearby farmers go about their daily business.  I want to talk to them, I want to know what they know and understand what they remember.   Pol Pot has been likened to Hitler but many Cambodians believe that he was worse than Hitler.  The idea is that Hitler killed who he perceived to be the enemy, Pol Pot killed his own people.  There are not many people in Cambodia over the age of forty and the reason why, Pol Pot, died under house arrest in 1998 awaiting his tribunal.  Some of his underlings have been convicted and sentenced as recently as 2010 and will continue into 2011.  While leaving, a couple just arriving asked us to take a picture of them smiling in front of the monument housing the thousands of skulls, my advice for future visitors is to walk around first and see if you feel like smiling and posing for a happy vacation picture after while limbless men stand at the exit with their hats in hand.  I am filled with emotion after visiting Phnom Penh, the history is difficult to fathom.  I am glad I visited these sites because while I once had the notion of, “wow, I can’t believe this happened in my lifetime, people used to do this, people were this barbaric.”  No more past tense, this is happening, people do this and are this barbaric.  It may not be long before we visit Rwanda or Bosnia.

The monument at Choeung Ek containing the skulls at The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Inside the monument with the clothing at the bottom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A sign in the fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A sign in the fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A sign in the fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A sign in the fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Killing Tree, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Excavated mass graves that resemble craters, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Clothing fragments scattered about throughout the fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Human teeth and bone fragments are still scattered about throughout the fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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