This post contains graphic images and information about the Cambodian Genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. As hard as it was to experience, write about, or read, we felt it was an important journey for us to make during our time in Cambodia. We feel it is a worthwhile one to share with our readers as well.
“To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” ~ one of the mottos of the Khmer Rouge
After seizing power of Cambodia in April 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge sought to create a purely agrarian-based Communist Society. It forced over 2 millions citizens from the cities onto collective farms to take up work farming in order to produce enough food to become a self-sustaining country. Possessions and money were banned, books were burned, hospitals and schools were destroyed. Families were broken up. Children and parents were separated. And the government controlled every aspect of their lives: where you lived, who you spoke to, what you worked on.
They were given unrealistic demands to triple the amount of rice produced on these farms. And, being inexperienced in agriculture as many of these people were, it couldn’t happen. More than a million people died, either from starvation or from lack of medical treatment.
Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime then set out to eliminate anyone suspected of capitalistic behavior, intellectuals, city dwellers, those with foreign ties, and just about anyone with an education.
In 1976, the Khmer Rouge founded a secret torture prison in an old high school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. They named it S-21 and over the next three years they would torture and interrogate over 17,000 people here. Then they would load these people onto trucks under the cover of night and drive them to a secret compound at Cheoung Ek, about 15 km out of town. They would tell them they were being relocated to a new house so that any attempts at escape or scenes of screaming along the road could be avoided. But, once they arrived, they were carefully checked off the list (many even had to sign their own names – not realizing they were signing their own death warrant), and then systematically murdered and dumped into mass graves. At the height of this genocide, more than 300 people a day were brought to Choeung Ek and executed. Choeung Ek was only one of countless killing fields throughout Cambodia. It is estimated that there are over 20,000 mass graves throughout the country.
Bullets were too costly, so the executioners used whatever creative means they could find, often using farming tools or the serrated edges of sugar palm fronds. Most were killed by a blow to the neck or head before being dumped into mass graves. But, in order to insure that all were dead, as well as to disguise the smell so that the neighbors wouldn’t suspect what was going on here, they then poured DDT over the bodies.
By 1979, when the Vietnamese army liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, over 17,000 people had been tortured at S-21 and then executed and buried at the Killing Field at Choeung Ek. Nationwide, almost 2 million people were murdered and buried in similar mass graves. Men & women, old & young, nobody was safe from the Khmer Rouge.
We started off our journey as so many of these victims did; with a visit to S-21. Formerly a high school on the edge of Phnom Penh, from the outside it still looks like one, with large classroom buildings around a central courtyard. But inside are dark secrets and to walk the hallways and enter the classrooms is to take a journey through horror.
The Khmer Rouge kept detailed records and photographed everything they did, in order to prove to their party leaders that orders were carried out. From photos of the victims, both before, during, and after interrogations, to the interrogation rooms and prison cells, much is left just as it was found by the Vietnamese in 1979.
We traveled the same hallways and staircases as these victims, as we explored the classrooms turned into torturous interrogation rooms, the cells built out of brick or wood, where these people were chained together as they awaited death, and the rooms where the Khmer Rouge meticulously recorded and stored records of everything that happened here, and everyone who passed this way.
We read stories of families who were split up and stories of children and teenagers who were forced to serve in the Khmer Rouge and perpetrate so many of the horrors that the party leaders cooked up. And we read the stories of the party leaders who are currently on trial for their crimes against humanity.
As we traveled from room to room, viewing hundreds and thousands of photographs, we grew emotionally weary, but we couldn’t stop looking. Who are we to deny these people their right to be remembered and acknowledged for the horrors they witnessed and the inhumanities they suffered? And so we continued to look into the faces, so many with pain, but so many others with a calmness & humanity about them.
I think we will be forever haunted by those photographs. Here is a very small sampling of the ones we saw today. Click on any image to view it larger.
From S-21, we headed out of town to the Killing Field at Choeung Ek.
The first thing you notice when you arrive is how peaceful it is here, a former orchard in a rural area 15 km outside Phnom Penh. As you enter the grounds, the beautiful Memorial Stupa catches your eye, soaring high over the lawns. But as you step closer, you realize that the sides of the stupa are made up of windows, and that it is full of skulls. A sign next to the door says, “Would you please kindly show your respect to many million people who were killed under the genocidal Pol Pot regime.” This is when it fully hits you where you are and what actually happened here.
As a visitor to this place, you are invited to travel the same path as the victims, starting off with the spot where the truck would pull up, and where the prisoners would be checked off a list before being led to their death. Commentary from former Khmer Rouge soldiers and biographers make the story of this place come to life.
From the drop off point and the site of the detention center, you are led further into the compound. We got our first glimpse of the killing fields. Many of the graves here have been excavated, and those graves are surrounded by low bamboo fences and covered with roofs. But many graves have been left untouched, and the fields are dotted with them. Deep impressions in the ground surrounded by higher bits of land. As the bodies decomposed within these graves, the earth sank. We spotted several bones and a set of teeth in one of the graves. The graves are so shallow that remains often are exposed after heavy rains. Several times a year, caretakers collect these remains, along with the remains of clothing, and carefully store them, allowing these victims to rest in peace. The first excavated grave we came across contained 160 bodies. But as we moved further back into the fields, the graves got larger. One contained the remains of 450 people. Another contained over 100 headless bodies…the remains of former Khmer Rouge soldiers who were executed by the Khmer Rouge for treason (which was usually unfounded).
But the most horrific grave was one that contained the remains of only women and children. Mothers and babies executed together. The mothers executed by blows to the head. But the babies and children executed by being beaten against a tree next to the grave, The Chankiri (or Killing) tree. It was the policy of the Khmer Rouge to execute all members of a family, including children, so nobody was left to return and seek revenge. The tree was covered in colorful bracelets ~ tributes from the many visitors to this place.
As we were leaving this grave, it began to rain. Mother Nature matching our mood. Our time here at the Killing Fields was done.
Here are photos from our time at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh and at the Killing Field at Choeung Ek.
A. G. Moore says
Devastating article. I am old enough to remember the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. I don’t think Pol Pot was a singular monster–like most torturers, it seems he thought he’d run out of ways to terrify people so he kept trying to top himself. Once the ability to feel sympathy is gone, there’s no limit to what the human mind can conjure up.
Thanks for an essential and sobering journey into the Heart of Darkness. I look forward to many more reports from yonder.
A. G. Moore