WARNING: The following article gets VERY graphic (only verbally though as there are no photos). Please proceed with caution if death/ murder/ torture/ human remains make you feel uneasy.
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My following TWO blog posts will be on the Choeung Ek Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, Cambodia and then also S21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. On my tour we visited the killing fields first, then S21. This is the order I will be posting the articles in but if you wish to read them the other way around (which is probably more chronological in terms of history) then feel free to wait for the S21 post in a couple of days.
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In 1975-1979, 3 million Cambodians were killed in a mass genocide by a leader who wanted Communism for his country. He wanted everyone to live in a simple farming community to get back to the roots of the county so essentially wiped out anyone who he saw to be “educated”. This was anyone who could speak another language, anyone with glasses, pale skin, soft hands etc. Even the children of these people were killed as it was thought they would grow up and seek revenge on those who killed their parents. This was called the “Polpot Regime” and can be read about in further detail HERE. The above is simply a very brief rundown for some context.
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These 3 million deaths were done in “secret” so had to be in places where no one would suspect. “Killing Fields” were set up by the Khymer Rouge (communist soldiers) out in the countryside away from the general population. The victims were bussed out here in groups in the dead of the night, silently slaughtered and thrown into mass graves. One of the largest of these fields can be found just a 30 minute drive from the centre of Phnom Penh and is the one visited by tourists who wish to learn of this horrible, horrible piece of history. We took an afternoon tour out here.
If you would like to see photographs of this place I will direct you towards our good friend Google.com. I only took one photo from this day out of respect for the victims and I also just had too many emotions going on in my brain to think about composing a photograph.
When you arrive you walk through a gateway and down a path into what looks like a beautiful garden. Ahead is a tall stone structure with a glass centre surrounded by burning incense and nicely potted flowers. It is a very powerful and beautiful structure and you assume it is just a large memorial tower for those victims killed here in these fields. When you get closer however, you can see it has a much more sinister (yet still respectful) meaning and reason. This structure houses hundreds of sets of human remains complete with weapons used to kill them. It is to show everyone the horrific method of murder that these human beings were subjected to. There are layers upon layers of skulls and other body parts, displayed with machetes, saws, spikes and other inhuman metal contraptions used to take their lives.
…and this is just the start.
We are first taken to some information boards to read at our own pace. This gives you a bit more background info on this specific location and tells you what the surrounding structures mean, almost like a map. We are then taken down the dirt paths to each of the mass grave sites and shown how large they are and told approximately how many people were buried in each one.
One of the more gruesome details we were told is how the soldiers actually did the killing. We all assumed they were just shot execution style on the edge of the grave and then left to fall in. This is however sadly not the case. These killings, as I mentioned before, were done in secret so bullets would have been too noisy and not mention rather expensive. The victims were actually mostly sliced in the throat with nothing more than a rugged edged, stiff piece of branch from the nearby trees. (Kind of like if you imagine a really stiff piece of flax with ridges?) These were of course very blunt (we touched one) and therefore the victim would’ve taken a while to die and been in a lot of pain.
As you walk along the paths between graves you can sometimes notice little white bumps. You assume they are rocks but we are told that these are actually bones. Human bones that the water and flooding after all these years is still bringing to the surface. There are little collections of them off to the side of the path that have surfaced recently and it might be one of the creepiest parts of this whole place.
Probably the saddest location in the fields for me and many others was a tree beside a particular grave. We learnt that this is the tree on which the babies were killed. The mothers were forced to kneel at the grave, watch as their babies were held by their feet and swung against the thick trunk of this tree and then thrown into the grave before them.
I spent a lot of time at this tree at the end of the tour when we were given free time. It was the most haunting location for me so I crouched down beside it and said a quick prayer for them. I am not religious by any means but in cases like this, your emotions just take over and you aren’t really sure of what to do, you feel very helpless and like you want to do something. So I prayed to whoever is out there that the souls of these children found a happier place to grow old and be happy. Visitors are welcomed to leave a bracelet with their prayer on the tree or on the fences of the graves. I unfortunately did not have anything on me so instead just left my thoughts.
Right at the end we walked back around to the monument and lit some incense for the dead. I knelt at the base of the structure for a couple of minutes just thinking and praying and thanking the heavens for the life I was lucky enough to be born into.
The killing fields is a haunting, horrific location and is not for the faint of heart but it is also a beautiful and peaceful memorial to those lost in one of the worst genocides in history.