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Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)

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Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

(*This is extremely long, dark, and downright horrible. But I told myself I would write up something like this when I returned home in order to remember some of the details…)

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

I stood under the blazing hot sun watching a flock of ducks swim across a deep blue lake. Across the vivid green lily pads lay the skyline of Phnom Penh and just beyond the fence in front of me, an elderly woman attempted to sell drinks and souvenirs to passing tourists.

In my left ear, Sam Rithy spoke: “A guard found two bananas on the body of a female prisoner. He asked her, “Where did you steal these from? I asked you to work, not to steal!” She answered, “I didn’t steal. The guard who took me to work gave them to me.” But the guard, Comrade Chhorn, did not believe her and continued to accuse her. He took a hatchet from his back and beat her neck until she fell down. Then he took a hoe from where people had been cleaning the sewers. And he hit her in the neck. She convulsed and died. They asked the cleaner to bury her. I saw this with my own eyes, even though I could hardly look at it. I couldn’t say anything. It was so painful. That’s how they tortured and killed people. She was killed for two bananas. I felt so painful, but I didn’t know what to do. I felt so sorry for her.”

Led by Pol Pot in 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea or the Khmer Rouge, took over rule of Cambodia. Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and therefore killed anyone perceived as educated, lazy, or political enemies. Due to this social engineering policy, much of the Cambodian population was forced into labor or prison camps. One of the more famous prison camps was Toul Sleng (S-21) in Phnom Penh where as many as 20,000 Cambodians were imprisoned for interrogation, torture, and eventually death – only twelve people were known to survive. When the mass graves in and around S-21 began to fill with too many bodies, prisoners were marched 15km south to Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields. Here, the Khmer Rouge brutally murdered and buried prisoners in shallow pits. It was only one of over 300 killing fields throughout the country. Once the regime fell in 1979, graves of 8,895 bodies were discovered here.

“Today, this place is known as the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. With its trees and birdsong, it has a peaceful feeling. But as you walk, look down — you’ll see the terrible truth in the fragments of bone and cloth at your feet.” 

Each visitor receives a very well-done audio tour, narrated by Ros Kosal, a survivor of the days under the Khmer Rouge. Excerpts of that tour are below and the full transcript found here.

Stop number 2 is a simple sign marking what was once a Truck Stop: “They may have arrived here in 1976, or 77 or 78, it doesn’t matter. The same thing happened again and again. People were brought here to be killed. Two or three trucks pulled up to this spot every few weeks, bringing 50 to 70 people. But in 1978, trucks began coming every day, with as many as 300… The people were dragged from the trucks, and were either taken away to be killed or were led to a place just a few meters farther on. There you’ll find another sign board marked Stop #3: Dark and Gloomy Detention….”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 3 Sign: Dark and Gloomy Detention: “The building that once stood here was known as the Dark and Gloomy Detention. Prisoners were usually killed the night they arrived, one by one. But after 1978, when there were too many to kill right away, sometimes they were held until the next night and kept in the simple wooden structure. It had no windows, and double thick walls. Sounds were muffled. In the darkness, no one inside could see each other or look out.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 4 Sign Board: The Executioners’ Working Office: “Maybe you’re wondering why you’re reading signs instead of looking at buildings. Well, the structures that stood here did not last long after the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979 by their own defectors and by the Vietnamese. Soon after, this place was discovered. By that time, we were all starving, desperate for food and shelter. And people were angry. So those who lived nearby tore apart everything here and used whatever they could. The simple building that once stood here was where the Khmer Rouge kept their office. Record keeping was precise. Every prisoner in every truck had to be checked off a list and accounted for. Occasionally, prisoners had to sign the roster themselves. When they did, they were signing their own death warrant.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 5 Former Ceremonial Kiosk used by local Chinese community: “The Khmer Rouge picked Choeung Ek for its execution grounds partly because it was out of the way – and partly because it was already a graveyard used by local Chinese people. In this simple kiosk, the Chinese held traditional ceremonies for the deceased before burial.”

Stop 6 Sign: Chemical Substances Storage Room: “Once more, you’re standing in front of a sign where there was once a building. This time, a shed that housed chemical substances – such as DDT in powder form. Sometimes, victims were not actually dead when they were pushed into the pits that served as graves. DDT spread on the bodies finished the job. Its smell also disguised the stench of decay. A few steps away is a sugar palm tree with large spiky leaves. You see many such trees here in Cambodia. The sugar palm has many uses – for sweetening, for example, for thatching, or to make palm wine. Today, even for biofuel. But take a close look at the stems that support those big fan-like leaves. Along them, you’ll find dark jagged ridges, like the teeth of a shark or a saw…. Those ridges are so hard and sharp that at Choeung Ek, they were sometimes used to slit prisoners’ throats. When a person’s throat is cut, he or she cannot shout or make a sound.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 7 Mass Grave: 450 Victims: “You are standing at a grave where 450 bodies were found. A few steps away is a line of flowering trees that marks the boundary of the actual Killing Field. This is where the graves are. In 1979 – a few months after Pol Pot’s army was driven west by defectors from the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops, the terrible truth was revealed –129 mass graves, scattered over 2.4 hectares – that’s almost 6 acres. They held almost 20,000 victims, killed as quickly and efficiently as possible and pushed into pits, as if life had no meaning. Today, the largest of those mass graves have been marked and covered with a protective roof, like this one. As Pol Pot’s paranoia grew, as many as 300 prisoners were killed here in a single day.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 8 Sign: Killing Tools Storage Room. How people were killed: “The shed that once stood here held tools intended for agriculture, construction and repair. At Choeung Ek, these tools were used for murder. The Khmer Rouge did not shoot people here. Bullets were expensive. Victims knelt in front of pits that would soon be their graves. Then they were beaten and hacked to death with whatever was cheap and available – axes, hoes, cart axles, bamboo poles, hammers, machetes.”

Stop 9 Chinese Grave. Bones and Teeth Fragments: “A few steps away, you’ll see a marked-off area. It’s one of many where bones and teeth still surface, especially during the rainy season, as soil shifts and rain washes dirt away. From here, you can see many depressions in the earth. They mark the pits of the mass graves. They are empty now. And with time and weather, soil has shifted. Some of the pits are now just shallow depressions in the ground. Once, they were as deep as 5 meters – that’s more than 16 feet.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 10 Longan Orchard: “Before the Khmer Rouge came to Choeung Ek, this whole area was an orchard.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 11 Walk on path by lake: Music and Memories: “This path heads away from the excavated graves. Bordering one end are rice fields. It runs along the top of a dike built to protect Choeung Ek from flooding during the rainy season. If you want to, you can take a quiet walk along the lake, which is often only partly filled with water. On either side of the dike are over 40 graves that are still undisturbed – some are under water. We have chosen to let the victims who lie here remain in peace.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 13 Mass Grave: 166 Victims without heads: “Some of the people buried here like the 166 discovered in this grave, were actual Khmer Rouge soldiers, with uniforms and ID numbers. They came from the Eastern Zone, on the Vietnam border. Pol Pot had been secretive and paranoid from the start. By 1978, his new, pure society was disintegrating from impossible expectations and mismanagement. The Angkar began to see enemies everywhere. A few words of accusation from a fellow worker could lead to imprisonment, or even death. Many Khmer Rouge soldiers from the Eastern Zone defected – asking for help, or joining with their communist neighbors. If caught, they were killed as traitors. The soldiers who lay here had been decapitated, perhaps as an example to their comrades, according to the Khmer Rouge accusation of “Vietnamese head, Cambodian body” . The headless bodies were brought here for burial.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 14 Glass Box: Victims’ Clothing: “Every two or three months, the staff of the centre gather rags, bones and teeth that have come up to the surface. The clothes inside this box have been collected since 1980. Though most are just rags, if you look at them closely, you’ll see some that belonged to children. They are here to help us think about the people who came to this place and never left.  You may see also see strips of cloth used for blindfolds… or cords for making hammocks that were used to bind hands. All has been preserved. Guards stripped the clothes from early victims, and covered the bodies with DDT to mask the smell. But at the end, when so many were being killed at once, there was no time.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 15 The Killing Tree: “Most of the women who were pushed into this pit had been stripped of their clothes. It is said that some of the buried women had been raped as well. But there was worse to come. Babies died here too. Many were killed before their mothers’ eyes. Do you see that big tree nearby? It is called the Killing Tree. Soldiers grabbed babies by their legs, smashed their heads against it, then tossed them into the pit. All this at night, in the glare of florescent lights.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 16 Glass Box: Victims’ Bones and Teeth. Spirit House: “Like the shreds of clothing, bone fragments keep coming to the surface – caretakers collect them every few months. It’s as if spirits of those who died here will not lie still. You’ll see teeth among the bones. They could have been knocked out when victims’ heads were smashed. Teeth were also pulled out during torture, or just fell out as the body decayed… If you don’t know much about Cambodian tradition, you may be wondering about the small structure nearby – it’s about the size of a bird house. It may have incense sticks or flowers in front of it. In fact, it’s a spirit house — a reflection of cherished beliefs so ancient that they predate Hinduism and Buddhism. You’ll find them all over the country. They are an expression of caring and respect for those who’ve gone before – and a dwelling place for spirits that have not found rest.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

Stop 17 The Magic Tree: “This ‘chhrey’ tree looks very much like a bodhi tree, the type of tree that Buddha sat under when he attained enlightenment. But no miracles happened here, though it is called the Magic Tree. The “magic” was sound — loudspeakers hung in branches broadcast revolutionary songs throughout Choeung Ek. At night, it is said, they gave outsiders the impression of a Khmer Rouge meeting. In fact, the music was to drown out the screams of people being murdered.”

Stop 18 Memorial Stupa: “This magnificent memorial stupa was built by the government of Cambodia in 1988 in memory of those who died here at Choeung Ek. Before that, their remains had been housed in a temporary shelter… The first ten levels house almost 9000 skulls, arranged in scientific categories and labeled. As you look at the skulls, you can see how these victims were killed. A huge crack where a machete struck, for example, or a hole from a hammer. The upper levels are used for other major bones, such as leg or arm bones, and jaw bones. Ribs and hip bones and smaller bones were left in the earth. There was no room to display them all.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

“The stupa is a Buddhist form – a structure in the shape of a mound or dome originally used to house sacred remains or relics. This one is taller than most, and it’s decorated with both Hindu and Buddhist symbols. First, look underneath the roof, at the top of the pillars. You’ll find birds at each corner…. Those are Garuda birds. The great Hindu god Vishnu rides not a horse or a dragon, but a huge Garuda. This divine protector combines features of giant birds, lions and humans. Now look at the corners of the roof jutting out above. There, you’ll find magical serpents known as Nagas. They are like dragons. Their golden tails trail up the roof beams and twine together in the spire at the very top. Nagas are a legendary race said to have fathered the Khmer people. You’ll often see them represented with seven heads outside of temples. Nagas are the traditional enemies of Garuda. When these enemies come together as you see here, they are a symbol of peace.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Phnom Penh Cambodia

“This was hardly the first case of genocide. We never thought it could happen here. But it did. And the thing is, it can happen anywhere. It did in Nazi Germany. And in Russia, under Stalin. And in China. In Rwanda. In the US, with its Native Americans. And in Argentina, and in Chile. Tragically, it will probably happen again. So for your sake, remember us – and remember our past as you look to your future.”

(The full transcript of the audio tour here. It’s absolutely worth a read.)

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