Visiting the Killing Fields

Posted: November 19, 2008    Categories: Cambodia

Skulls in the victims memorial pagoda

Skulls in the victims memorial pagoda

One of the things which has made up a major part of my life has been academic debate. I was on the debate team in high school, in college and coached high school for three years after I graduated. During that time I read volumes about almost every subject you can imagine.

In debate, you are forced to take both sides of an issue. You can become very detached about the subjects you research, and in all the years I was involved in debate there was really only one subject that really influenced me on a personal level. That was the genocide in Cambodia. My knowledge of what happened in Cambodia from 1975-79 wasn’t something I learned about when I got to SE Asia. (I will not outline in detail what happened there. There are plenty of resources online where you can learn more about it. Suffice it to say that between 1 to 2 million people, out of a population of 8 million, were killed in a span of four years through famine and outright murder.)

Memorial Pagoda Entrance

Memorial Pagoda Entrance

It is a sad commentary on a capital city of a country, when the biggest tourist draw revolves around mass killings. Sadly, that is the main attraction in Phnom Penh. The guesthouse I stayed at played the movie The Killing Fields every other night, and a documentary on the Toule Seng prison on the nights in between.

I wasn’t sure how I’d react to visiting the Killing Fields. I’ve never been to places such as Auchwitz before, so it was a totally unique experience for me. What happened in Cambodia has never quite stuck in the public’s conscious like Holocaust. In fact, one of the odd things I found myself doing (and I know I’m not alone in this) was trying to make comparisons between what happened in Cambodia and what happened in Germany. It doesn’t take long to realize how foolish it is trying to compare or rank degrees of evil, especially when the monstrosities you are talking about are so great.

You don't know weather to laugh or cry when you see a sign like this. Click for larger image.

You don't know weather to laugh or cry when you see a sign like this. Click for larger image.

When you visit the Killing Fields, you are struck by how underwhelming it is. Prior to gaining its notoriety, it was an orchard. There is only one permanent structure there; a large pagoda filled with the skulls and bones of the victims found in the mass graves. The closer you get, you begin to realize the enormity of what is inside. Piles of human skulls, many of which have holes in the top of the head.

The area around the pagoda is so cratered, it looks as if it were bombed. The craters are the remains of the open mass graves were victims were left. Up to a hundred people would be dumped into a single hole. They system for killing people was very organized, like what you saw under the Nazis. Records and photos were kept. Unlike the Nazis, they didn’t build elaborate camps. Bullets were deemed too expensive, so most people were killed by hand via strangulation, blunt weapons or blades.

Bed and cell in Toul Sleng Prison

Bed and cell in Toul Sleng Prison

I didn’t go through phases of grief, sadness and astonishment. I quickly went directly to being pissed off. The more I learned about the events before and after the Khmer Rouge rise to power, the more pissed off I became. The details surrounding that is another post.

After the Killing Fields, my tuk tuk driver took me to the Tuol Seng prison. Like the Killing Fields which turned a simple orchard into den of madness, the Tuol Sleng prison used to be a Phonm Penh high school. This was where prisoners were taken for interrogation before they were taken to the Killing Fields. Of the over 17,000 people who were taken to Tuol Sleng, only seven are known to have survived. (The official name the Khmer Rouge used for the prison was Security Prison 21 or S-21 for short).

Makeshift cells in Tuol Sleng classroom

Makeshift cells in Tuol Sleng classroom

Toul Seng was a torture center. It is hard to call it anything else. Prisoners were chained to the floor and many of the school rooms were bricked up to create more, smaller cells. Some of the rooms had prisoners chained to the floor as if it were the deck of a slave ship. There were hundreds of photos on display of the victims who came through the prison. It was chilling to look at them knowing that they were no different than the people you meet on the street, and that every one of them was tortured and murdered in cold blood.

Electrocution was a preferred method of torture in Toul Sleng, but they hardly stopped there. A bar in the courtyard of the school originally built for exercises was turned into a gallows and some inmates were hung. A painting in the prison also depicts water boarding.

I can’t help but think what Cambodia would be like today if it wasn’t for the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia is far behind its neighbors economically and has a high amount of corruption. Most of the educated class was killed, actually targeted because they were intellectuals, by the Khmer Rouge. It made it very difficult to rebuild when the people who ran things were systematically eliminated.

In the movie The Killing Fieldsd, Sam Waterson’s character said that “Cambodia was a country he had learned to love and pity.” I think that sums it up quite well.

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