A sober reminder of man’s inhumanity at Choeung Ek killing fields

Posted: March 14, 2011 in South East Asia
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It’s the morning after the night before and I’m feeling contemplative. Yesterday, Sunday 13th March, we arrived in Phnom Penh and headed straight to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, approximately 15km southwest of the city.  With limited time left in Cambodia we wanted to pay our respects at one of the most prominent of the execution centres used by the Khmer Rouge during their regime.

We came to Cambodia with a limited perspective on the genocide. Yes, we knew it had happened and a man named Pol Pot orchestrated the atrocities that cost more than 2m lives. But further detail was missing. The visit to Choeung Ek added layers of understanding in a refreshingly honest and sensitive way.

A brief background on the Khmer Rouge

Having declared independence in 1953 under the rule of King Sihanouk, Cambodia was dragged back into the dark ages of civil war when the King was overthrown by General Lon Nol. Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing and formed an in-exile government that allied itself with an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement called the Khmer Rouge. Violence ensued.

Upon the capture of Phnom Penh in 1975 the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most brutal social restructurings ever seen. Their goal was to revert Cambodia, now the Democratic Kampuchea, into a giant peasant dominated agrarian economy. Huge swathes of city dwellers were ripped from their homes, marched into surrounding countryside and forced to work in labour camps for up to 15hrs per day with little food and protection. Disease spread and the death rate was huge.

The leader of the Khmer Rouge was Saloth Sar, more popularly known as Pol Pot. Born to prosperous landowners, he won a scholarship to Paris where he became embroiled in the Communist movement and started to develop radical Marxist philosophies. Upon his return to Cambodia this molded to a ruthless Maoism and Pol Pot led the enslaving of the people. Intellectuals, foreigners and the leading lights of the day were rounded up and executed, a threat to the peasant revolution. It is documented that simply wearing glasses was reason enough to be murdered.

Understanding the extent of brutality

Choeung Ek was the transit point for prisoners from S-21, better known as Tuol Sleng Prison (which interestingly, now the Genocide Museum, is opposite our guest house and I can see the barbed wire fencing as I type).  It is believed that S-21 processed over 20,000 prisoners in the 3 years of Khmer Rouge rule, sending the vast majority out to the killing fields for mass execution.

Under the management of a Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, S-21 was responsible for extreme brutality. Amongst his heinous crimes is the vicious murder of children whereby guards swung them by their legs against trees until their skulls were crushed. In the now barren garden at Choeung Ek you can see the trees that served as battering posts. It’s a haunting experience. That Duch was a former math teacher makes his disdain for the abuse of children even viler.

Walking around the killing fields is strangely peaceful though deeply emotional. You walk through the main gate towards a giant stupa erected in the 1990s. Inside the stupa is a huge glass cabinet that contains the skulls of all the bodies recovered during excavations of mass graves. Some skulls are cracked, others have jaws missing, testament to the violence imparted on the victims. The stupa is a beautiful building and we stopped to light incense sticks and lay flowers as a mark of respect. Muneeza moved on quickly as she found it very hard to look at the skulls.

A path is then laid out navigating you through the killing fields with major points of interest signposted with information boards. At one point we stood on the spot where the detention centre was housed. From here the prisoners, crammed in to a dark and dingy cell, were dragged in shackles and summarily executed in the fields. There is a huge tree in the middle, called the Magic Tree, and the Khmer Rouge hung speakers on it to drown out the sounds of the tortured prisoners so people in nearby villages wouldn’t know what was happening. That was the creepiest part of the visit, knowing that people had been so callous in hiding the reality of their violence.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

We stopped and took stock of our surroundings. In every direction you can see shallow pits. Each pit is a mass grave, some containing over 400 bodies. In one grave 150 naked bodies of women and children were found., their clothes casually discarded during the blood letting, some of them killed by having their throats sliced with blunt farming knives.

The Museum is highly informative and contains pictures of the Khmer Rouge leaders as well as some of their victims. It provides an objective account of what happened. Inside we read information on how the prisoners were killed. As the number of daily executions mounted (at its height more than 300 people were killed each day), the murderers struggled to keep up with the bloodlust. They resorted to burying people alive and covering the bodies with horrific chemicals such as DDT to speed-up the process. It’s impossible to imagine the fear and excruciating pain that these poor people endured in their final moments. It really does bring tears to your eyes.

A case of mixed emotions

We left the killing fields in somber mood. It’s important that visitors to Cambodia try and understand the impact the Khmer Rouge had both on the country’s economy and the people’s psyche. The destruction of society to create a peasant economy sent Cambodia back to the dark ages economically; the Khmer Rouge bulldozed buildings, cancelled schooling, killed intellectuals and ripped apart social services such as hospitals. It has taken decades for the seeds of growth to return.

Emotionally, the genocide still weighs heavy on Cambodians. Many people were directly affected, losing loved ones. We heard a guide at the museum telling his tour group that his Dad disappeared never to return but he managed to escape and his Mum cried with joy when he was reunited with his family. The brutality of Pol Pot and his gang of murderers is in stark contrast with the beauty of Khmer people. They are kind and friendly, gentle by nature. We’ve become extremely fond of Cambodia even in the few days we have been here. How anyone could treat his own people with such ferocity is beyond our comprehension and that is a good thing.

Whilst we sympathise deeply with the people and our hearts go out to the fallen, it is impossible to empathise with something so thankfully alien to our lives. How can you understand what it would have been like as a prisoner surrounded by agony and death? We just hope that the world learns something from this and it helps prevent a repeat, though our confidence is low because history is littered with other examples such as Rwanda.

The end of the revolution

The Vietnamese brought an end to Khmer Rouge rule, starting with the liberation of Phnom Penh in 1979 after 3 years of bloody murder. The Khmer Rouge retreated quickly into the far reaches of the country along the Thai border and its brutal leadership went into exile. Pol Pot shamelessly died in his own home in 1998 before he could be brought to justice. How long does it take the world to find justice? For nearly 20 years he lived in freedom as the world carried on. Perhaps if he had been a threat to Western oil supplies it might have been a different outcome.

In 2007 the Cambodian Government approached the UN to establish a special court to bring the former leaders to justice. In 2009 the court (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) was convened and a number of high profile Khmer Rouge leaders were finally on trial. It wasn’t until 2010 that a verdict was reached. The largest sentence was handed out to Duch – 35 years. A poignant placard hangs on the wall as you leave the museum at Choeung Ek, asking, “Is this really justice?”

Inside Tuol Sleng Prison

We have just returned from a self-guided morning tour of the Tuol Sleng Museum. Originally a centre for learning, it was converted into the notorious torture centre S-21 during Khmer Rouge rule. It’s a twisted irony that a school should be the heart of darkness in an era where education was banned and institutions torn down.

I will not dwell on the details, you really need to visit to understand the overwhelming sadness this place. The prison compound has been preserved as it was following the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge. In each block you can see the detention cells and items of torture used on prisoners. In one block there are boards containing photos of all the prisoners, taken from Khmer Rouge archives. It’s a chilling confrontation to be face-to-face with the poor souls who lost their lives in such tragic circumstances. We left with a profound sense of loss, a genuine regret that the world lets this happen.

What angered me the most was learning that the UN General Assembly still kept a seat for the Khmer Rouge until 1990 despite what they did and refused to recognise the Government of Cambodia because they decreed the Vietnamese intervention as illegal. So it’s ok for Pol Pot to wipe out millions, including ethnic Vietnamese, with torture and extreme violence but it’s not acceptable for Vietnam to fight back and defeat the regime. Therein lies the insidious nature of Western influence. I wonder sometimes whether the UN is little more than a political vehicle for the US.

Love jamer & muneeza x

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