The Worst of Humanity – The Killing Fields of Cambodia
Before arriving in Phnom Penh we had read about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s, but it was not until we toured the S-21 Prison and Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, that we felt it on an emotional level. Our hearts ached learning what the people of Cambodian were subjected to under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rogue regime.
When Pol Pot came into power he declared that all forms of religion, institutional education and anyone holding a position as a skilled professional be eliminated as a step to ensure Cambodian independence. He then gutted Phnom Penh, separated families, moving the Cambodian people into the countryside where they worked in farm labour camps under vile conditions with little food and little sleep while under constant threat of being beaten or killed. During this time many professionals such as professors, doctors, lawyers, and their families “disappeared” from the rice fields, in an attempt to do away with westernized ways of thinking.
Any person suspected of questioning the Khmer Rogue’s authority, including politicians, professionals and most anyone with any advanced education were rounded up, along with their entire families, and brought to prisons around Phnom Penh where they were tortured. After receiving information from the tortured prisoners, the Khmer Rogue were ordered to kill them and their families in secret. Pol Pot believed it was better to kill the entire family, babies included, then risk having anyone from that family seek revenge on him at some point in the future.
What is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, once stood one of the most barbaric prisons in history, commonly referred to as S-21. After Phnom Penh was evacuated and schools were shut down many schools were converted into prisons including S-21, a school house which saw its classrooms turned into prison cells and playground equipment turned into torture devices.
The cells range in size with larger enclosures holding high ranking political prisoners (to maximize the sensation of isolation) while others were kept in wooden cells no bigger than a broom closet. Walking into the cells sent a shiver down our spines as the actual tables and weapons used for torture were still on display; blood still stains some of the floors of the smaller cells. There is an eery sensation that the buildings had only been deserted a few short months ago.
On the way out of the museum there are two survivors of S-21 who are both selling books on their experiences within the prison. We spoke to the second survivor (through his niece) about his experiences in prison, being tortured, and seeing his wife killed inside S-21. After hearing his story, all of us (our two Dutch friends toured with us) found ourselves overwhelmed with emotions and teary eyed barely able to speak a word on the way to our next stop, the Killing Fields.
Although thousands of mass graves can be found throughout Cambodia, Choeung Ek (about 15 km southwest of Phnom Penh) remains the figurehead and has been coined the “Killing Fields”. After receiving our audio guides we started the most heart wrenching tour we have ever been on.
In the first part of the tour we listened to how the prisoners of S-21 were tricked into thinking they were being taken to a different prison when in fact they were taken, blindfolded and gagged, to be executed. We walked past the spot where the trucks would unload the prisoners and then execute them, some by gunshot, while others by more the gruesome and “economical” means of common gardening equipment and some even perversely using the sharp edges of local vegetation (see below).
We learned that in the first few years that they were bringing truck loads of people to be killed, they would strip them of their clothing. However in the latter years, when the volume of prisoners had increased exponentially, victims were buried fully clothed. This is why so much clothing has worked its way through the soil over the years. We saw many pieces of clothing surfacing through the soil and wrapped around the roots of plants which made this act which seemed unbelievable at first so incredibly real in our hearts and we were instantly overwhelmed by both extreme anger and sorrow.
In a large tree located in the middle of approximately 12 mass graves, a loudspeaker hangs which used to play music in order to drown out the screams of the people as they were killed. Located close by, are glass cases busting at the seams with clothing, bones, and teeth which have been collected over the past few decades as they surface from the soil around the site. These cases are now so full that people have resorted to piling the bones and clothing on top as seen below.
The most horrific part of the entire site (if it is possible to name just one) was seeing a tree, located right beside a mass grave of women and children, where Khmer Rouge soldiers would smash infants heads in order to kill them before tossing them into the open pit so they would not have to waste any bullets.It was a sickening feeling that made our hearts ache. Visitors have hung bracelets in honour of the lives that were lost.
After touring the mass graves we finished the tour by paying our respects to the dead at a massive stupa which houses 9,000 skulls, as well as bones and clothing unearthed from the graves exhumed in 1980. When the skulls were examined it was found that most of them had evidence of being bludgeoned to death by the Khmer Rogue most likely as a way to save bullets.
In total, there are 129 mass graves at this site where they estimate at least 17,000 Cambodian men, women and children were killed. Most of the graves at this site have been exhumed while others have been purposely left in peace. It is important to note that this site represents only one of thousands of other mass grave sites found around Cambodia which is gut-wrenching to consider. Before the Khmer Rogue took power the population of Cambodia was close to 7,000,000 people, afterward, only 5,000,000. At least 2,000,000 men, women and children lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rogue either through executions of starvation.
Evening more unthinkable is learning that Pol Pot was a free man a full 20 years after the Khmer Rogue committed genocide, serving only one year of house arrest before passing away (mystery surrounds exactly how he died). Whats more, the Khmer Rogue held a position with the United Nations for almost two decades after committing these unthinkable crimes against humanity! We were outraged to also learn that no aide was given from the international community after this atrocity.
The S-21 Prison and Killing Fields of Phnom Penh represent the absolute worst of humanity. I believe every man, woman and child should make an effort to see these places, as hard as it is, so that something as horrific as this never happens again.
The Cambodian people are so kind, honest and beautiful and to imagine these gentle people living through such a horrific time, brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.
Ross and Alyse