The Killing Fields of Cambodia

Imagine that you wake up one morning and find out that a new leader has taken over and soldiers arrive at your door telling you to get your rice bowl and hit the road.  You get forced to march into the forests where you will now farm rice.  But wait, not everyone has to go.  If you own a business, are college educated, a professional, a teacher, a government worker from the old regime, if you speak a foreign language, or if you wear glasses, you will be killed instead.

This is what happened to Phnom Penh in 1975 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took the city.  For four years, this nut job’s idea of a perfect society was one in which there is no owned property, no currency exists, and everyone lives in the countryside.  They literally emptied out the cities.

Over the course of that period of time, 2 to 3 million, about 25% of the population died by execution or starvation.  I was picked up today by Sum Vun who was a 17 year old boy during this time.  His family – father, mother, and siblings – all died of starvation.  He lived with his uncle until he died and then Sum was on his own.  I never quite understood how he survived but he now has his own family and says that things are getting better.

Our first visit was to The Choeung EK Genocidal Center, home to one of the largest killing fields from the time.

Remains in the Memorial Stupa

Remains in the Memorial Stupa

It is a somber place where an audio tour walks you through the area where bone fragments and clothing still stick out of the ground.  The Memorial Stupa at the center of the site was built in remembrance of the genocide and houses remains from many of the victims that died in the surrounding fields.

After that, it was off toe Tuol Sleng or “S-21” which was a high school converted to a prison and torture center under the Khmer Rouge.  This was the first stop for many of those who ended up in mass graves at the killing fields.  When Phnom Penh was liberated in 1979, fourteen victims were discovered in gruesome condition – the last victims of Tuol Sleng.

Prison cells, torture devices, skulls, and pictures of the victims are all on display. When prisoners were brought here, they were photographed, catalogued, and measured.  I thought this photo was particularly haunting..

Victim of Tuol Sleng Prison

Victim of Tuol Sleng Prison

What could have this young girl possibly have done?  She was most likely brought here with the rest of her family for some alleged offense against the government.

The most astonishing thing about all of this is that Pol Pot was supported in exile by the Western nations and was recognized as the rightful leader of Cambodia by the U.N. after fleeing Cambodia.  This was due largely due to the Cold War with communism and the fact that Vietnam played the key role in liberating Cambodia from Pol Pot.  He lived another 23 years after being ousted in 1979.

The legacy of Pot’s attempt to radically change society if felt today.  When a society loses all of its educated citizens, schools and hospitals are destroyed, and its entire economy stopped, it creates a hard road back to prosperity.

My final stop of the day was Wat Phnom temple in the center of the city.  Like many Asian cultures, worship and remembrance of ancestors is an important part of belief and tradition.  A steady stream of locals came to burn incense, offer up sacrifices, and release birds with a wish for the future.  Perhaps the genocide that was not that long ago, brings special significance to this worship.


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