The Killing Fields – Phnom Penh

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, aka “the killing fields,” is situated on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Apart from the central memorial tower, housing hundreds of skulls, the site looks hardly remarkable and the sedate, tree lined setting seems completely at odds with the gruesome activities which took place there almost forty years ago. It’s only by way of the tour audio tape you are given upon entering the historical site, that its true horrors are revealed.  There is a sign posted route to follow with numbered locations coinciding with a running commentary describing the significance of each location.  As you meander from one point to another a monotone dialogue explains the horrors meted out to the victims and the fairly clinical way the executioners went about their butchering.

According to the commentary most of the victims were trucked in like cattle during the night. Having already been tortured, beaten and brutalized for days previously at Tuol Sleng Interrogation Center most were probably resigned to the fact this was their last stop.  Some, no doubt, were probably looking forward to the end to their misery and suffering. Location number one, according to the commentary once again, was the disembarkation point where names were recorded and the last vestiges of any human dignity were taken from them. Glasses, wedding bands and any personal items were gathered up by the gaurds/executioners before the victims were herded to location number two, the assembly point for execution. The tape went on to explain that most of the executions took place at night and the method was usually a bullet to the head but, when bullets were scarce, garroting was regularly used to dispatch the hapless victims.

The trail through the pits used as mass graves

The trail through the pits used as mass graves

Those singled out for interrogation and execution were generally the old ruling classes, the academia, those wearing spectacles and anyone with “soft hands.” Anyone educated, and by extension having knowledge considered a threat to the “people’s revolution,” was eliminated. And therein lays the truth of what really occurred in Cambodia during the five years of horror visited on the population of the country. As with all people’s revolutions of the past those in positions of leadership and power wanted an unquestioning, compliant mass of peasants to do their bidding. Anyone capable of questioning their leadership, or seen to have the potential to question their leadership, was eradicated. It was the ultimately extreme version of George Orwell’s 1984 being played out.

By the time I’d got to the fourth location the dialogue had become so depressing with its description of the horrors of the place that I was at the point of turning it off. The entire grassy area is dotted with pits where thousands of human remains were recovered in 1980. Large black and white photos show the skeletal remains exhumed from the mass graves at the time. Other somber “proof of death” displays also include glass cases with hundreds of femur bones and piles of clothes/rags worn by the victims at their time of death. According to the tape the recovery of the victims’ remains began in 1980, by government forces, after the Vietnamese Army had driven the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh.

A black and white photo taken in 1980 showing the exhumed remains from the mass graves

A black and white photo taken in 1980 showing the exhumed remains from the mass graves

Another mass grave with hundreds of skeletons uncovered in 1980

Another mass grave with hundreds of skeletons uncovered in 1980

Human remains exhumed in 1980

Human remains exhumed in 1980

The clothes worn by the victims at their time of death

The clothes worn by the victims at their time of death

And just when I thought things couldn’t get any dourer I arrived at the “killing tree.” I’d heard about this in the past and it sounded truly horrific. What kind of brainwashed madness would drive men to commit such acts of pure evil? In remembrance the killing tree had a small coloured amulet for each infant that had its brains bashed in. According to the tape the infants, after having their heads smashed against the killing tree, were tossed into a nearby pit to join their dead, and dying, mothers. Truly horrific stuff.  Nearby to the killing tree is another tree of infamy; the “magic tree.” Much larger than the killing tree, it also has a sign to explain its infamous use. As I stood there contemplating the tragedy of the location I couldn’t help but wonder at the bizarre name accorded to the “magic tree.” Perhaps the warped logic was the music made the sounds of the victims’ disappear? After getting a few more shots I turned the tape off and moved on, I’d heard enough. A few meters along the track I spotted a couple staring intently at something in the dirt on the trail. Interested, I moved in to see what it was they were looking at.

“I think it’s bones,” said the lady as I joined them and got my camera out again.

Contrasting the red dirt of the track was the white shards of yet unrecovered human remains. Why they were still there was hard to fathom? The caretakers of the site would surely be aware of the existence of the remains. Perhaps it was part of the gruesome memorial of the place? A stark reminder of the tragic events which occurred here; people killed like cattle and piled into mass graves without a care for the individuality of each human being. Just numbers to be exterminated in the name of collectivism.

The sign says it all

The sign says it all

The tree where speakers were hung and music played, to drown the noise of the victims

The tree where speakers were hung and music played, to drown the noise of the victims

Still embedded in the walking track, shards of bones of the victims

Still embedded in the walking track, shards of bones of the victims

The horrors of the Khmer Rouge rule have been well documented and no justification could ever be found for their reign of terror and murder. However, as with all “peoples” revolutions there are initiating, or motivating, factors which allow despots such as Pol Pot, and their associated Politik, to rise to prominence and, dare we say it, popularity. As it was in Russia, and China, one of the prime motivating factors of these “people’s parties” was the idea that the ruling elite, or the wealthy classes, were living a life of decadence completely out of touch with the hungry masses. Simply put; one extreme begets another.

There’s no doubt that many visitors, to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, would be appalled by the descriptions of the sites past inhumanities as they wander about listening to the tape they’re provided with. While it may be shocking; the sheer ruthlessness is hardly surprising. Barbarism on this scale is a collective or group thing. People get caught up in it and before they know it they’re just following orders and killing, raping and pillaging, with the best of them in the name of the cause. We’ve seen it in China, Russia and Germany in the past. What also isn’t surprising is that no one has actually admitted to any wrong doing. Even the small number of Khmer Rouge leaders who’ve recently been prosecuted, found guilty and imprisoned, for their crimes against humanity, haven’t actually admitted their wrongdoings.  But, once you’ve lived in this part of the world for a number of years, one understands that the maintenance of “face” takes precedence over any admission of wrongdoing. And that, unfortunately, must impact to some degree on the moral base of the thought processes of the population.

A stark reminder of the horror, and madness, of the extreme collectivism of Cambodia’s past

A stark reminder of the horror, and madness, of the extreme collectivism of Cambodia’s past

The fact that many, who killed with impunity, have simply returned to their homes must leave a population in a lingering, unresolved mindset. Perhaps not but if there is a hangover from the past it may help explain why Cambodia seems to be a place where the rule of law is some way down the scale of life’s considerations. The pervading feeling, as one moves about in the chaos of the place, is that life is pretty cheap here; it’s Rafferty’s rules, and each to their own, in the daily scramble to eke out an existence on the mean streets.

I was completely unaware that the civil war which ravaged this country for twenty eight years is still an unresolved issue. According to Phan, my driver for an earlier trip to the remote temple sites of Koh ker and Beng Mealea, nobody actually won; the whole thing just petered out after a long and ineffective series of negotiations between the nationalist forces and the Khmer Rouge.

“Sihonouk came back in 1992 and he kept telling the people they must stop fighting and go back to their homes and villages. To continue fighting would be very bad for our country. Six years later, in 1998, the fighting finally finished. It was mainly because of the king that it finished but the leaders of the Khmer Rouge continued hiding out in the jungle because they knew they would be accountable for their crimes against the Cambodian people. In the end all the main Khmer Rouge leaders died; Pol Pot, Ta Mok and the others.”

“And no one else was held accountable?”

“No, they just went back to their homes and carried on with their lives.”

Perhaps, in the end, that was the best way. After twenty eight years of misery and suffering enough was enough and even though there may be forgiveness, you can be certain they’ll never forget.

Safe travels,

Mega

 

 

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