Recently, I visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I knew very little about Cambodian history before I visited. But part of travelling is about learning, right?
The Killing Fields
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields, near Phnom Penh, are often more simply known as ‘The Killing Fields’. Choeung Ek is one of thousands of such sites around Cambodia, where 1 in 5 Cambodians is estimated to have died during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime in the 1970’s.
Tourists can visit the site, where prisoners from the S21 prison were brought to be murdered. There is an audio tour which includes stories from survivors and is truly heartbreaking to listen to.
There are many mass graves, many of which are fenced off and adorned with bracelets, left behind by tourists. I’m not sure why bracelets are left – solidarity? Remembrance?
In the rainy season, it’s common for pieces of clothing and human bones and teeth to make their way to the surface. A stark reminder of the horrors that occurred in these now peaceful fields.
I walked around the Killing Fields alone, even though I was with a group. Most visitors do the same. It’s shocking that a genocide of this scale happened a mere 30 years after the end of the Second World War.
One of the most shocking parts is the Killing Tree, now adorned with bracelets, with a sign simply saying, “Killing Tree against which executioners beat children.”
The final stop of the audio tour is the stupa, a lasting memorial to victims of the Khmer Rouge. Inside is a number of human skulls, categorised into age groups and how they died. It’s shocking to see because every single skull was once a Cambodian person, who died a brutal death.
The narrator of the audio tour asks all listeners to remember what they’ve seen at Choeung Ek, in the hope that we can prevent similar atrocities occurring in the future.
“It is important for me that the new generation of Cambodians and Cambodian Americans become active and tell the world what happened to them and their families … I want them never to forget the faces of their relatives and friends who were killed during that time. The dead are crying out for justice.” – Dith Pran, from his compilation “Chldren of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors”
S21 Prison – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
S21 is a former high school which became a prison under the Khmer Rouge. The site was kept top secret until liberated in 1979. Up to 20,000 prisoners were kept here. Only 7 made it out alive.
The tour takes you through the different cell blocks. Some were used to hold prisoners in extremely small cells. Some were used as torture rooms. When the prison was liberated, bodies of prisoners were left tied to beds on which they’d been tortured. A Vietnamese journalist documented this and the pictures can be seen on the walls of some of the cells.
Many of the former cells contain photographs of the former prisoners, many of whom tragically remain unidentified to this day. There were also descriptions of the brutalities faced by the prisoners, including waterboarding and other torture techniques.
By the end of the day, I felt I’d learned a lot about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. It was awful to hear about the atrocities that happened, but I believe it’s important that people continue to learn and remember.
I still had some questions which I felt hadn’t been answered:
- How much did the international community know about what was happening in Cambodia at the time?
- Why did it take so long to bring the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice?
It’s insane to think that this happened only 30 years after the end of the Second World War when the Allied forces were horrified to find concentration camps in Germany and surrounding Nazi-held countries. What’s worse, is that genocides have happened since, and continue to happen in the present day. Perhaps one day we can stop history repeating itself.
I experienced so much kindness from the Khmer people. It’s heartbreaking that anyone over the age of 40 lived through these horrors.
For more information about the Killing Fields, please see the official website for the museums.
If anyone can answer my questions, please let me know!