I would like to start this post by saying that I have not brushed over any of the facts that I learned today in order to make them more palatable. It is a grotesque story but deserves to be told correctly and in full. My apologies- it was just as hard to write as I assume it will be to read.
I didn't really have time to prepare myself for what I was about to see. And I'm not sure that more time would have strengthened my resiliency. The Cambodian "Killing Fields" are only 15 km southeast of Phnom Penh; we were there before I expected us to be.
The conversation with an expat from the previous night was playing through my head as we made our way to the site where horrible atrocities occurred against the Cambodian people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The expat had said that he found it in bad taste that this site had been made a tourist attraction. While I don't think tourists enter this site like they would an amusement park or a water park- I do understand on some level where he's coming from. My view though is that it is very important that we understand our history, as well as our mistakes so that we can better understand how we can prevent the same errors from occurring again. Perhaps more importantly, we shouldn't allow ourselves the convenient option of forgetting the people who suffered so terribly. It was with this mindset that I prepared myself; I would try not shy away from the victims' photos, stories, or bones. It is also with this reasoning that I want to share what I learned.
Pol Pot and his party, the Khumer Rouge came into power in 1975. The priority of his Communist party was to reform the county's agrarian system. He forcibly removed people from the cities and into farming collectives where forced farming and mass labor projects took place. Schools thought to be of no use, thus were closed and instead used for storage or as in the case of S-21, where a school was converted to a jail that was used for torture before sending the prisoners to their execution. His goal was to become a self-sufficient country- removing the need for imported goods. To eradicate possible dissidents- such as teachers, doctors, those who spoke other languages, or anyone who spoke out against the party, the Khmer Rouge pulled these people from the farming collectives. These keepers of knowledge were then tortured for information against other perceived dissidents and/or killed. In Pol Pot's four years of rule, it is estimated that between 1-3 million people (25% of the population) died of either starvation in the fields or execution.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center provides an excellent audio tour while you walk through the Killing Fields. I also appreciated the silence as we each listened to our own audio or were deep in our own thoughts as we tried to understand the unimaginable cruelty that took place just 35 years ago.
Choeung Ek is the most well known of the 300+ killing fields throughout Cambodia. Many of the mass graves at Choeung Ek have been excavated and documented in detail. Several have been left in peace. We saw mass grave sites that once contained 450 victims, another of 166 headless remains, and another of just women and children. Bullets were too expensive so the killings were done with whatever tools were available, often farming tools or perhaps the most cruel of ways, by swinging children against a tree. Children were brutally murdered in front of their parents and vice versa. People had starved during their forced farming, then were starved and beaten in jail. It is told that some were thankful when their time came, as so to put an end to their own suffering.
I am unsure why but the Khmer Rouge recorded excessive levels of detail in their documentation of the prisoners. After the tour of the Killing Fields, we visited S-21, the jail and torture site that was housed within a converted school building. The classrooms- turned cells- are now full of hundreds upon hundreds of photos of those who were detained. There are photos of Children, Elderly, Men, Women, Mothers with their young- some Bruised, Starved, Angry, or some seemingly Empty of any remaining life force. The balconies of S-21 still are covered in barbed wire. It was not to stop anyone from escaping but rather to prevent the attempted suicide of the detainees who would prefer to jump to their own death.
By 1979, the party's strength had collapsed and the party was ousted. It was at that time that the Choeung Ek Killing Field and S-21 were discovered.
A memorial stupa was completed in 1989 on the grounds of Choeung Ek. The skulls of more than of 8,000 victims have been laid to rest within the memorial.
For information on the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, visit- www.cekillingfield.com or the Khmer Rouge International Tribunal at www.eccc.gov.Kh/en and www.cambodiatribunal.org or Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program at www.yale.edu/cgp.