Visiting the Killing Fields

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 Fields, 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.

12 thoughts on “Visiting the Killing Fields”

  1. I was working for the Census as an enumerator last June. A lot of people slammed the door in my face. But one fellow who I woke up invited me in and gave me all of the information for the form and then more. He told me it was time for his medicine. Then he told me how he and his wife were there in the Killing Fields working 12 hour days on 2 tablespoons of rice. His English was fair, but he kept saying, “they killed me and then they killed my wife” The guards struck each of them on the back of the head with a shovel and left them for dead. Somehow they were able to escape. Part of the story which I wish I had written down, was of him dressing as a woman to get past guards. The look in his eyes as he told me this will never leave me. I thanked him and left.

  2. Yeap. Felt pretty much the same way when I went and killed the rest of my day. I actually did not know much about the Khmer Rouge so I decided before I went to Cambodia to read ‘First They Killed My Father’ and my entire time visiting those places, that’s all I could think about. Having these horrible images of how their life may have been like. It wasn’t even that long ago. Just knowing that anyone over 35 was affected, made things worse for me. My tuktuk driver had his entire family killed when he was a kid.

  3. I visited both the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng while I was in Phnon Penh last month. I found it very confronting and heartbreaking, and I had to wonder how the rest of the world can sit back as this happens over and over again.

    Like you, I couldn't stop wondering what Cambodia would have been like today if it had never happened. Wandering the streets of Phnom Penh, looking at all the gorgeous buildings that have been left to decay…It's something to think about.

  4. i lived here in Phnom penh for 15 years, but i not yet visit the place. i know the history, i read it quite well from the book, i heard it often from my parents.

    i would prefer to keep it in mind that here is the history and there was the place where people kill people. maybe one day i will have enough courage to visit,

    i would say there are many other places in Phnom Penh and in Cambodia that always wlecome tourist and people are really friendly. i am a bit sad that the museum got such a bad feeling and experience to the tourists … maybe we should put some precaution.

    but for sure Cambodia is a beautiful country and a nice place to live.

  5. Your reactions gave me a chilling flashback to my visit to Auschwitz and Berkenau in college. I actually blocked out a chunk of my trip – I have pictures of rooms I have no recollection of visiting. Human-kind's capacity for inhuman cruelty is staggering.

  6. I had a difficult time with both places. I have since gone through Phnom Phen again, and refused to go back to either place. As I said to my friend, these are places that everyone should see once, but only once. I will have those scenes in my head forever.

  7. The most unfortunate thing about all the genocides besides the Holocaust is that they are both overshadowed and basically unknown. Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur… the list goes on, yet how many people even know where any of these places are? Even the Holocaust is unknown to a vast amount of people, and then there are those who deny its existence. This pattern of mass killings will just keep on going if people keep forgetting.

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