The Killing Fields
Delving into a dark corner of Cambodia's past
in attempts to reconcile the present
Visiting the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh is like getting close to completing a 1,000-piece puzzle. Afterwards, every person you've locked eyes with, every building you pass and road you've crossed makes a lot more sense. Angkor Wat showed me the rich and significant history of the Khmer civilization but I'd understand nothing about Cambodia today without vising the Killing Fields that ravaged the entire country and its people just forty years ago.
A brief history behind the Killing Fields: Cambodia was one of the most developed nations in the region but years of bombing by the Americans fighting the Vietnam war had left them weary. When the KR marched into Phnom Penh in 1975, people flooded into the streets to cheer for the perceived end of violence. Within hours, Pol Pot ordered a complete evacuation of the city, believing that people were more pure out in the country digging canals or farming rice. Thus began the forced labor camps and the purging of all educated, bilingual, or ethnic minority people as well as anyone suspected of critiquing the government. Under his rule, one fifth of the population perished and the country was severely set back socially and economically. Operations ceased in 1978 when the Vietnamese captured the city but the KR was the officially recognized government until well into the nineties and even received financial aid from the US and UK!
I started at S-21, a former high school turned political prison for the estimated 20,000 people captured and interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. Most of the prison is left as it was when the Vietnamese army found it in 1978- numbers crudely scrawled on the wall, iron shackles left in small, bare wooden cells, restraining beds in the torture rooms, barbed wire covering the terraces so prisoners can't jump to their death. Some rooms display mugshots and paintings depicting interrogation torture like waterboarding and putting people's heads inside boxes of scorpions. It's macabre to say the least, but the museum succeeds in their two primary missions to tell the individual stories of the Cambodian people and to educate as a form of prevention against similar atrocities. While the audio guide touched on a fair amount of history, the focus was on testimony from survivors and former guards. Only nine people out of 20,000 survived.
When people arrived at S-21, they were immediately interrogated and tortured until they confessed to whatever they were accused of. Most people had never heard of the KGB or CIA but confessed as spies to the paranoid regime. Once the confessions were recorded and signed, the prisoner was sent to be executed at the Killing Fields. The whole process took just a few days.
Walking the Killing Fields plays a bizarre trick on your senses. It looks like any other park; the birds are flitting about and chirping, and the walk around the pond is picturesque and peaceful. It's hard to image that such a pleasant place is home to more than 150 mass graves, most of which have been exhumed and are now 5-foot holes in the ground. Prisoners arrived to the site in the dark of the night with loud speakers blaring party music to mask the screams. Bullets were too expensive so most people died by machete or hammer to the head, which is evident in the skulls on display in the mausoleum.
The most disturbing grave was one filled with women and children, next to which is a tree where soldiers bludgeoned infants to death and tossed them into the grave next to their dying mothers. I can't begin to imagine how horrific it must have been.
It was a tough afternoon to stomach, but I learned so much about this deeply important event in recent history. When you leave, you look at the Cambodian people differently. Every tuk-tuk driver, every cook frying up lortcha, every hardened face you see on the street over forty years old is a survivor. These people have been through a lot and although Cambodia is rapidly developing and modernizing, it's clear to see that the average person's struggle to move on is a lot more complicated.