The Killing Fields were the place the Khmer Rouge took their prisoners to be executed, once they had finished extracting information from them. There were over 350 of these Killing Fields around the country, with more being uncovered. The government has preserved one of these fields, Choeung Ek, just outside the capitol of Phnom Penh as a memorial. Upon arriving, the location looks like a farmer’s field, nothing extraordinary. There is one “building”, a glass Buddhist stupa, which contains the skulls of approximately 8,000 victims. Some bear obvious evidence of the violence visited upon them…tool marks, holes from bamboo stakes, and massive fractures. Bullets were expensive, so as much as possible they tried to use other methods, such as hammers, spades, burying alive, or the use of a machete. For children, it was easiest to beat their heads against nearby trees. The number of skulls…piling high into the sky, each one representing a person, a life lived. It was almost too much to take. And we hadn’t even seen the actual fields yet.

Walking around the site you notice dozens of sunken impressions in the ground. Each one was a mass grave. Unearthed in 1981, authorities are still unsure as to how many people met their end here. The fields have remained nearly untouched since then. Pieces of clothing and human bones quite literally litter the site, poking out of well worn paths, and accumulating in piles under trees, and bleached white by the sun. Every rainfall reveals more. The patterns on the clothing particularly struck me. I wonder if they might yet be recognized by a family member? A favourite dress, a well-worn blouse…I guess it’s possible.
All in all, visiting the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng prison was an incredibly emotional experience for both of us. I had studied the horrors of the Holocaust throughout school, and I thought I was somewhat desensitized to the horror of it all. I was so naieve. Cambodia was just so completely raw. I asked Mike how Cambodia compares to a place like Dachau, which he visited in 2002. He said there was no comparison. At concentration camp sites there are high tech museums, clean displays and modern sculptures representing rebirth and other abstract themes. Here, it is so recent, so gritty. And so completely in your face. It is difficult to say if the passing years and the continuous arrival of hordes of tourists will necessitate more protection of the site by the creation of a museum, but as it stands now, it is a fitting memorial for a simple and generous people so decimated by the ravages of extremism and civil war, and a place I will remember forever.
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