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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Tuol Sleng was a highschool in Phnom Penh that was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison. Men, women and children were tortured into naming names, creating a vicious cycle of thousands of innocent people being tortured and eventually killed. When the Vietnamese captured the city in 1979, they located the prison by the smell. While people were generally not killed in the facility (unless they died during torture), the Khmer Rouge had left in such a hurry that the remaining 14 prisoners had their throats slashed, and were left to decompose. The Vietnamese took a photo of each room as they found it, and this photo is now displayed in the room, along with the articles that were present – a metal bed, gas can for urination, and box for fecal matter. Sometimes, torture tools were also present. Upstairs, makeshift cells dividing the former classrooms housed hundreds of prisoners. The cells are unchanged since liberation, and bloodstains are still present on the floors.

Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented everything. We know approximately 20,000 people were brought through this facility. Before entering, each person had a photograph taken, and in this prison-turned-museum, each photograph along with the names of the individuals and date of arrest is displayed. Rooms after room after room of these photos are on display. Women with newborn babies and young children were not excluded from the torture and eventual death. Some, including children, have their ID tags pinned directly through their skin. What upset me the most however, was the looks on the faces of these people. Some were clearly terrified, others resigned to their fate, and others still were smiling. Perhaps they had no idea what was to come? Perhaps it’s a strange reaction we all have, to smile when someone points a camera at you. I don’t know. But looking into their eyes was heartbreaking. The pictures were so modern. These people were the age of my parents.
Our guide was also a victim of the regime. She told us the following story:
“I was 10 years old in 1975, and I remember everything. My father, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, they all died. Boys and girls were separated. My shoulder was swollen from carrying supplies to the camps. My shoulder hurt. I wanted to tell someone, but I can’t. So I was quiet. I moved back to Phnom Penh in 1983”.
It killed me. I even get welled up thinking about it. She turned to Mike and I and asked “My English, do you understand what I’m saying?”. We could only nod.
What I felt like saying was, I can understand the words you speak, but I cannot understand all this. And I still can’t. I just can’t wrap my mind around it.