During the mid 1980s I saw a movie called The Killing Fields. The film told the story of a journalist who was trapped in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s systematic execution of more than one million “undesirable” civilians. This film packed the kind of punch that cannot be explained away by political trendiness. The account of this tragedy and its carnage in Cambodia under the radical, communist Khmer Rouge evoked in me a level of empathy that was both uncomfortable and absorbing. Seeing this film was like learning about the Holocaust, part 2. I decided to learn more about this human tragedy, and I further resolved that I would, one day, travel to Cambodia to see the actual “Killing Fields” for myself.
It would be more than a decade and half later when my flight from Bangkok arrived at the tiny Phnom Penh airport on a warm summer morning. The required entry-visa was available on arrival for a nominal fee of $5 payable in U.S. currency. On the ride in from the airport, I attempted to converse with the taxi driver in my extremely limited French. I was much relieved when he answered me in fluent English. I explained to him that I wanted to visit Choeung Ek, which is perhaps the best known of the “killing fields.” This site is located just outside the city on Phnom Penh. We came to a financial agreement and he promised to be at the hotel the next morning at 9 a.m.
The term “Killing Fields” actually refers to a number of sites throughout Cambodia where collectively over 1 million people were systematically killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge. These executions were carried out between 1975 and 1979 by Pol Pot’s communist regime. They followed immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War.
These mass killings are one of the more egregious examples of state-sponsored genocide during the 20th century–perhaps second only to that of the Nazis. One mapping program carried out by Yale University indicates that there were at least 1,386,734 executions. Estimates of the total deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including death from disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of approximately 8 million.
My travels had already taken me to several of the Nazi death camps in Poland (Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek), yet as I waited for the taxi that beautiful August morning, I felt a bit anxious about what I would see at Choeung Ek. The taxi arrived at the hotel’s forecourt right on time. I jumped in for the 10-mile drive to the most well-known of the “killing fields.” During the journey through the winding streets of Phnom Penh and out into the neighboring countryside, I chatted with my taxi driver about his impressions of the Choeung Ek. He was well informed because, as it turns out, several members of his extended family had been killed there. Among other things, he repeated a narrative I had encountered in my research before coming to Choeung Ek. Namely, that the executioners were very creative in finding ways to kill innocent citizens without “wasting” precious bullets needed for the war. These methods ranged from a blow to the head from the butt of a rifle to the more routine slitting of a victim’s throat. Babies, he said, were often killed by bashing their heads against a tree. In fact, as I entered the site I passed by one of the “killing trees” which was used for that very purpose.
As I walked around the site at Choeung Ek, I found it almost impossible to believe that this place, where thousands people were executed, had once been a lush, green orchard. There were only a few tourists there that morning, and the whole area was eerily quiet. I literally walked among the excavated grave sites where 8,895 bodies have been unearthed in 86 of the 129 mass graves. 43 of these mass graves remain untouched. It is estimated that these contain the remains of at least 8,000 additional victims. Fragments of human bone were clearly visible around the roped-off pits.
At the center of Choeung Ek stands a glass stupa housing approximately 8,000 skulls literally displayed on shelves. These skulls are arranged by sex and age and are visible behind clear glass panels. This memorial stupa was erected in 1988 as a visible and chilling reminder of the brutality of genocide. Every year on the 20th of May a ceremony is held around the stupa at Choeung Ek. On this day, Khmer Rouge survivors and their relatives, as well as other Cambodians who escaped this horror, gather around the memorial for a solemn service of remembrance that is intended to bring peace to the spirits of the deceased.
Choeung Ek has been transformed into a memorial site and tourist attraction in the hope that it will educate Cambodians, and indeed the whole world, about what happened here so that it will never be repeated. Choeung Ek is but a single example of the “killing fields”–although most researchers regard it as the one where the largest number of people were executed. The sad fact is, however, that there were killing fields all over Cambodia.
When I returned to the USA and began to review my diary in order to clarify and sharpen my impressions through additional reading and research, I keep returning to one central question: “How exactly did this genocide work?” I wondered what were the actual mechanisms used in selecting those to be executed? The selection was definitely not racial identity as with the Nazis as these poor souls were all Cambodian citizens. What I learned was at once both shocking and horrifying. The process seems to have gone like this: For minor political crimes, the “judicial” system of the Khmer Rouge regime would issue a warning. Anyone receiving more than two of these warnings was routinely sent away for “re-education.” Virtually all of those sent away would face certain death. In fact, those who were to be “re-educated” were often encouraged to confess every detail of their “pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes.” These “serious crimes” ranged from participating in some type of free-market activity to having had contact with a U.S. missionary to having received aid from an international relief agency. These doomed individuals were even told that the Cambodian government would forgive them and “wipe the slate clean” if they would simply confess to everything. These “confessions” became the basis for these individuals to be transported to a place such as Choeung Ek for indescribable torture and ultimate execution.
The Choeung Ek Killing Field near Phnom Penh stands as cruel reminder of the atrocities inflicted upon the Cambodian citizens by a single, evil regime. In reality, this single site has become the symbolic face of an horrific genocide that took place throughout the entire nation. Leaving this place and walking toward the car park, my thoughts about what I had just seen were momentarily interrupted by birdsongs emanating from a nearby stand of trees. I looked just beyond the trees to see the manicured fields where flowers were in full bloom. A gentle breeze was stirring as the sun’s rays shimmered against the paddies that dotted the field. Seeing this “normal” section of Choeung Ek, albeit in extreme contrast to what I had just witnessed, reminded me that humankind is indeed resilient and always finds a way to carry on even in the face of such abhorrent brutality and injustice. I was grateful for this simple sight of life as “usual” because it sparked a glimmer of hope and light to point the way beyond the darkness of this killing field.