Legacy of the Khmer Rouge, Pt. II

Our second stop of the day was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, known simply as the Killing Fields.

Although only about 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh, it was about a 40 minute tuktuk ride to get there. The streets are dusty and dirty, and the exposed tuktuk allows exhaust and other pollution to get in your eyes or up your nose. Not the best experience, but it wasn’t that bad. And it is cheaper than a taxi.

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Outside the area are plenty of Western-friendly restaurants, with Western prices ($6.90 for a hamburger). But we were hungry and sat at one of the restaurants and ate Cambodian food. It was really good, we had to admit. Really good sweet/sour pork with stir fried vegetables.

When we felt prepared, we entered the center. Admission was 6 USD apiece and comes with an audio guide. In the center of the field is a Buddhist stupa, or memorial to the victims of the regime. I’ve already discussed the political and cultural background of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, so I won’t do any more here. There are over 100 klling fields in Cambodia, exactly like this one, though Choeng Ek is the most well-known. Other fields lie hidden in the jungle or have land mines surrounding them, making it slightly hazardous for visitors.

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Everything here happened at night. The regime didn’t want anyone to know what they were doing, so all trucks delivering prisoners did so at night. Loudspeakers in trees broadcasted recorded music and party sounds to muffle the screams of people being murdered. At the beginning of the four-year regime people were taken off the trucks and bludgeoned to death right there. But as more and more people were sent to die the guards couldn’t keep up with the demand. Eventually they built huts to keep prisoners until the next night, when the killing would resume. Sheds held killing tools, which were knifes, cleaning rods, crowbars, and other things. Guns would make too much sound and bullets were too expensive. The field was chosen because it was somewhat isolated. It had been a Chinese cemetery until 1975, and they built a fence around three sides of the field. The fourth side was a small lake and sheltered by large trees. People passing by thought it was a military center, perhaps for soldier training or cadre leader meetings.

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The mass graves here vary in size, from less than 100 to around 450 people. Sometimes the prisoners were required to dig their own graves, but due to their weakness the graves weren’t very deep. Even today bits of blindfolds, rags, teeth, and bones find their way to the surface. Every few months the center workers collects them and put them in memorial cases or hand over to forensic researchers to learn more about the people that died. Very few of the bodies were ever identified, though it was usually easy to see where the graves were. The dirt bulged after a few days, the gas expanding in the grave. Some graves have been left alone, half submerged in the lake, and visitors are encouraged to watch where they step.

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According to Cambodian legend (pre-Buddhist belief), if a body is not properly buried they cannot go on to the afterlife, but will remain as ghosts in this world, searching endlessly for rest. This has caused particular heartbreak to the families of victims, who not only were never able to recover a body, but believe their loved one’s spirit is alone and restless. To provide some comfort, spirit houses have been nailed to trees in the field. This gives the roaming spirits a place to rest. Incense is left in jars and vases at the bottom of the tree to soothe the spirits and the mourners, along with flowers or other tokens.

Many visitors leave tokens at the center, like small bills of riel or woven bracelets.

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The most disturbing grave, at least to me, was the grave of the women and their babies. Many of the women were found naked, presumably raped, next to the bashed-in heads of their children. This spot is known as the “Killing Tree,” where the soldiers took the feet of infants and toddlers and swung them against the tree until the skull cracked and the child died. As we stopped there to listen to the guide, you could hear many people sighing and see them turning away from the remains of the grave. I was tempted to leave before the track of my audio guide ended, to get away before I cried, but decided to stay and look at the tree, covered in bracelets and flowers, until the end.

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The tour ended at the stupa, famous for the towering glass case filled with skulls and bone fragments. We were told to take off our shoes and quietly enter at our own pace, listening to the music as we went. Outside, people prayed or sat quietly. With the tour officially over, we went to the small museum on the center’s grounds, which showed familiar photos of victims, the regime leaders, and maps of the forced migration patterns.

This, too, was difficult to get through, but I’m so glad I did. We went back to our tuktuk driver in silence, thinking of the injustice and cruelty. “We couldn’t believe it happened to us,” the audio guide said. “But genocide can happen anywhere–in Cambodia, in Russia under Stalin, in Chinaunder Mao, in Rwanda, in the United States with Native Americans.”

The Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979 to the Vietnamese. Although they had previously been allied, the Vietnamese fought against the Cambodians, and the regime had to send thousands to fight back. On January 7, 1979 the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge fled into the jungle, trying to regoup. Because the invading forces were communist, the United Nations recognized the resistance (which included the Khmer Rouge) as the government, retaining a seat in the General Assembly for the fallen regime. Although they were in all practical sense out of power, the Cambodian people were still left with war, famine, and trouble through the 1980s. All of this is why Cambodia is still so poor. You can learn more information here, including about the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders and the tribunal.

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If anyone is interested in what order to see the two museums, I don’t think it particularly matters. But I liked the chronology of going first to the torture center, then the mass graves. It provided a sense of continuity for me, but I don’t think a different order would necessarily distract from the experience.

The long ride back into town gave us time to decompress, and I think we were both grateful for that. We went to the Russian Market, which isn’t named such because “everyone is always rushin’ around,” as Jordan suggested. No, the Russian Market is one of several popular markets in Phnom Penh, and is called such because when it became popular with foreigners in the 1980s, most of the people that lived there were Soviet expats. In the market you can buy almost anything.

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The back part is food, tires, tools, children’s clothing, and anything else a Cambodian would want, while the front half is more designed for tourists. Silk scarves and ties, elaborate stone buddha carvings, and lovely sarongs are everywhere. The market is dim, damp, and sweltering, but lots of fun. We bought Jordan a silk tie for 3 USD (she started at 5, I started at 2, and we worked out a deal) and I admired all the scarves.

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Jordan said the tool section of the market was better than Home Depot. After all of that in the heat, we were done. It was only 2 pm, but we asked our tuktuk driver to get us back to our hostel so we could wash all the dirt and sweat off. Resting after such an emotional day was important, too.

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And now, unfortunately, we are done with Phnom Penh and will be moving northward through Cambodia.

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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