An emotional morning at the Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

When I decided to go to Cambodia, Angkor Wat and the killing fields were at the top of my to do list. Angkor Wat didn’t disappoint and although I knew the killing fields would be a tough day I was looking forward to it. I know that sometimes the best travel experiences aren’t necessarily happy ones. In fact, it’s the sad sights that I’ve seen that have been the most meaningful (My day exploring the remains of Christchurch town centre for example).

First of all I have to point out that I’m no means a historian and I apologise if any of these facts or wrong or I’ve missed anything out, I’m just recalling what I remember. And also, I probably wouldn’t read this if you’re easily disturbed. To be honest I barely knew anything about the history of Cambodia before I came here and that included Pol Pot, the genocide or what would await me at the killing fields, but I was eager to find out. I was more saddened than I ever could have imagined and it’s by far the most upsetting place I’ve ever been, but I’m so glad I went.

We arrived at around 10.30am and were given an audio tour and some headphones where we had to press the right number at each spot. I had listened to around 2 minutes of the audio before I could feel myself welling up. The story was told by a survivor of the genocide. The figure that still sticks with me now is that 1 in 4 people in Cambodia were killed. Can you imagine if that were to happen in the UK? I just couldn’t even comprehend what devastation the country must have been through.

Our first stop was the area where the trucks used to stop. Prisoners would be transported from Tuol Sleung (S21) prison or other places in the country and would arrive 2 or 3 times a day carrying 20-30 frightened, blindfolded people. When these trucks arrived they were either led directly to be executed at the ditches or retained in a dark and gloomy room nearby (for times when the number of prisoners was too many to kill straight away – sometimes over 300 per day). This room was built with a galvanised steel roof and extra thick walls to make sure it was pitch black and they couldn’t see each other. Before any of this would happen they would have been taken from their homes and transported to the prisons – sometimes under the false promise that they were just being taken to a new, and better home – to avoid any hassle.

The next spot I remember was a chemical substances storage room where chemicals were kept to pour over the dead bodies. This was done for 2 reasons – to eliminate the stench (which could raise suspicion among people working nearby) and to kill off victims that were often buried alive. Nearby there was a tree with long, thin leaves. The audio explained that since these leaves could be very sharp the soldiers sometimes used these to slit victims throats. They would never shoot them – bullets were too expensive – they would kill them in the cheapest way possible even if it were the most painful. By this point I almost felt sick thinking about what had happened in the exact spot I was standing in, but there was worse to come.

Beautiful tree with deadly leaves

Beautiful tree with deadly leaves

Mass graves

Mass graves

Mass grave and tribute monument

Mass grave and memorial monument

We were also standing right next to a large field which was a mass grave to hundreds of bodies. Some of the graves were cordoned off with wooden fences which were lined with hundreds of bracelets left there by visitors – I left one of my own.

Bracelets left in tribute

Bracelets left in tribute

We were told about how the Khmer Rouge had a few mottos to live by such as ‘better to kill an innocent person by accident than let a traitor go by accident’ or ‘to keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss’. Everywhere you walked you could also see fragments of bones and left over pieces of clothing – a sinister reminder of what lay underneath us. There were cabinets of rags and bones too – teeth, jaws, arms and legs along with children’s clothes.

Bone and teeth fragments

Bone and teeth fragments

Clothing coming through the floor

Clothing coming through the floor

They’ve built a lake there to minimise the flooding and bodies are also buried underneath that. We took a walk beside it while listening to the stories from survivors. I found that part particularly hard to deal with.

a lake built over the bodies

a lake built over the bodies

teeth

teeth and jaw bone

The one that really got me was a man who had been forced to work all day every day before being tortured for hours on end. During his time in power, Pol Pot had forced urban dwellers to relocate to the countryside and work in collective farms and forced labour projects where many died of malnutrition, poor medical care or execution. He somehow came out of it alive. He described people around him as not only being murdered and starved but also dying of loneliness and hopelessness. The only way he kept the will to live was by a story his mother had told him when he was a child. She said that when she was pregnant she had dreamt he was born and went on to be a great man and do great things – that hope and desire to fulfil his mothers wishes kept him alive.

Another was from a woman who was beaten and raped so many times she fell unconscious, and was then cast out by everyone she knew – forced to go on the run for the rest of her life. The third was a man who had been held at the prison when he was 16. A fellow prisoner, an old man, had complained to the guards every day about their reasons for having a child in there, pleading with them to let him go. He complained so much that he was executed, and the boy was let go. He described how it pained him that he didn’t have his name or any way of contacting his family to thank them.

I sat there, looking out at the lake, listening to the stories and some traditional music and cried. It’s just so hard to understand how people could have such little respect for human life. It made me ashamed to be human – even wild animals wouldn’t treat each other this way. There was also a beggar near this lake, an old man with one leg. Jess and I were amazed to watch everyone walk past and completely ignore him, after hearing tales of such poverty. I gave his son 3 dollars and he looked so happy with it I could have cried all over again. One man stopped and asked him to pose for a few photos, even though he could barely move, and then gave him the equivalent of about 20p for doing so. Sometimes tourists make me really angry.

Next we came to probably the most horrific part of the tour – The killing tree. It’s a large tree that the guards used to use to throw children against, smashing their heads and killing them – often in front of their mothers. The grave beside it contained hundreds of women – most of the time naked – laying next to their babies. I’m actually even finding it a bit difficult to even write about.

Killing tree

Killing tree

The next tree would have been absolutely beautiful if it wasn’t for it’s purpose – to hang a loudspeaker on which played music – with the intention of drowning out the moans of victims being executed.

Tree they used to hang a loudspeaker from

Tree they used to hang a loudspeaker from

Our last stop was the memorial monument in the centre of the fields. This is where they keep hundreds of skulls in a stacked glass case. It’s about 10 tiers high and is only a fraction of bodies that were buried there. It’s pretty morbid and really bought it home just how many people were executed. Many of the skulls had holes in their skulls from where they had been struck by an axe or whatever tool they had chosen to use.

memorial monument with layers of skulls

memorial monument with layers of skulls

skulls

skulls

Pol Pot was a trained teacher and he basically used what he’d learnt to spread his insane communist views amongst the naive Khmer people – brain washing them to believe that city people were out to steal from the farms and smaller villages of Cambodia, and that they should be punished. He would recruit men young and build up an army of followers who would then threaten anyone who didn’t agree with his dictatorship. It’s hard to see how one mans views lead to the murder of thousands of people, but all it must have taken was for him to get a hand full of followers threatening enough to scare people into his leadership – then you can see how it managed to spiral out of control. He also banned education and turned schools into prisons – an easier way to brainwash children. What I can’t get my head around is how any man can be so evil and lack humanity so much – how is it even possible? and how is it possible that so many people chose to follow him rather than die themselves (an option I would have thought a lot of people would take rather than become a murderer). It just pains me so much to try and understand that.

After our visit to the killing fields we went straight to the S21 prison to see where the victims were interrogated and tortured before being brought to the fields or sometimes executed. They were tortured and forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit – as well as confess on behalf of their families so that they could kill them too. Most of the time if one family member was killed they would kill off the entire family. I think I’m going to write this post in two halves as I’m still processing the awful things I saw at that prison. It really has been a difficult day but I would recommend a visit to anyone.

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2 thoughts on “An emotional morning at the Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

  1. Mary

    This made me cry. You are a superb writer Martha.
    I have always said that the film ‘The Kiling Fields’ was the best anti-war film I have ever seen. There ARE some very evil people around .. . still are i some places: Power corrupts. I hate it and it makes me, also, ashamed. It s all to do with the Garden of Eden!

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