AnneMarie and Andrew

Annemarie and Andrew – Trekking Asia

Phnom Penh: The Killing Fields

Today was a tough day. We were up early to meet our Tuk-tuk driver for the day. We had arranged for a half day visit to a few of the ‘must do’ sites in Phnom Penh.

Our first destination was Choeung Ek. It is now a memorial ground but between 1975 – 1979 it was an execution site for the Khmer Rouge, it is one of the Killing Fields of Cambodia. There are over 100 sites around Cambodia, but this is the main tourist destination and is the site of the largest memorial Stupa.

At Choeung Ek people were brought to be killed after interrogation, torture and inevitable confession. Mass graves were dug and then whilst blindfolded and handcuffed the prisoners were lined up on the edge of the grave and murdered by anything to hand. The executioners didn’t use guns, probably to save ammunition (but the real reason isn’t known), they used ordinary farm tools, hammers, pitch forks, poison and barbed vines from palm stalks. As we walk around the location of some of the mass graves are covered and fenced off.

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In other places depressions in the ground mark where bodies have been excavated from the mass graves. Over 9000 people were killed at this site alone, an estimated 1.5 million people were executed between 1975 and 1979 at sites like this around Cambodia.

Rags and bones keep coming to the surface after heavy rains. These are collected and put on display.

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Perhaps the worst part was a tree, known as the ‘killing tree’, against which children were killed, in front of their mothers. The children and babies were picked up by the legs and killed against the tree trunk, then thrown into the mass grave.

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To think about it is bad enough, to try and understand is impossible.

The reason the children had to be killed was because Pol Pot said ‘to kill the grass you must also remove the roots’. He believed that the families of ‘traitors’ should be killed to prevent any members of the family seeking revenge. Another saying he taught was, “It is better to kill an innocent by accident than let a traitor go by accident”. Those are the sayings of a sick and warped mind who somehow was the leader of this country for four years.

The memorial stupa contains the bones from many of the bodies excavated in the mass graves. Over 900 skulls in the first 10 levels.

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Our next destination was the Security Prison 21 (S-21), known fully as Tuol Sleng. Before the Khmer Rouge took over this was a school. Amazingly, within hours of entering Phnom Penh in 1975 the Khmer Rouge started rounding up intellectuals, people who wore glasses, people with soft hands and anyone with an education and started killing them. Everyone left was rounded up and sent to the countryside, the cities were left deserted. Once the city was deserted the school was converted to a prison and with no-one left in the city there were no witnesses to the atrocities which took place within.

People would be arrested for the flimsiest of reasons and accused of been a traitor to the revolution. They were then subjected to torture, often lasting months, which always produced a confession, no matter how ridiculous the charge.

Our guide explained how she was affected as a 10 year old girl. Her family were separated and she had to go and work. There was no school. No shoes. Not enough food. By 1979 she said she had forgotten almost everything she had known from before, she could read or write and struggled to remember her name. She found her family, but three sisters and both brothers were missing and never found.

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Cambodia in 1975 had a population of about 8 million. 1.5 million were executed. Another 1.5 million either starved or died from disease. That’s about a third of the population gone, dead, within a few years. This level of genocide is hard to take in. The country was left with empty cities, a massively reduced population, a removal of the intellectual class and a legacy of death everywhere. It’s almost too much to think about.

For us the worst part of the story was hearing how Pol Pot went into hiding and lived as a free man for almost 20 years after this happened. He spent one year under house arrest and died of natural causes aged 82. Just incredible that such a tyrant could survive that long without any form of punishment…

Posted from Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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