How to describe such a place, such a heavy day. I remember upon returning to the hostel after what has to be one of the most intense, moving and overwhelming days of my life at Choeung Ek Phnom Penh. I felt drained to the core, my head was throbbing and my stomach churning with the sickness I had witnessed. Laying down to relieve some of my weariness as I closed my eyes the images of skills, smashed bones and piles of bodies haunted me. Just like our visit to Auschwitz, the killing fields are a necessary trauma we must endure in order to even come close to honouring the suffering of these people and in doing so vow to ensure it never happens again.
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Background to these horrific events
Many people are well versed in the events of the second world war and Auschwitz, even the most ignorant knows of Hitler and his reign of racism and terror. But no so many people know of Pol Pot and his equality malicious attempts at ethnic cleaning and outright genocide and given that this happened from around 1975 to 1979, this history is far more recent and many are still living with the effects and trauma of it in Cambodia and further afield for those who fled. Here’s a brief summary of Choeung Ek Phnom Penh.
Pol Pot ascended to power as the leader of the Khmer Rouge, which stands for the Red Cambodias, a communist party that ruled with a totalitarian regime. The Khmer rouge overthrew Prince Sihanouk in a Civil war after Cambodia won independence after years of French rule.
They set the clock to “year zero” in what was to everyone else 1975. Their ideology was strict and warped, Pol Pot would attempt to turn modern Cambodia into his vision of a rural state. He banished the “city people” or “New people” to work out in the fields in harsh and unfair conditions. Many did not know how to farm or live in this way and strict and impossible quotas for production were placed on them which left them with no food for themselves. Many would starve to death or died from overwork, others were taken and imprisoned, tortured, beaten, raped and their entire families killed in places like Choeung Ek and S-21.
There were many such places all over the country, their purpose, just like Auschwitz, was mass extermination of people. No one was supposed to leave. In 1979 the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the invading Vietnamese. Pol Pot died whilst under house arrest in 1998 after only serving a year. But the effects of Choeung Ek Phnom Penh would be felt for so much longer.
Choeung Ek Phnom Penh
Choeung Ek Phnom Penh is one of the infamous Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge and the largest one found. Only around 11 miles south of the capital Phnom Penh it was the place where around 20,000 people were brutally murdered and buried in mass graves. Over the whole of Cambodia it is said that over 1.7 Million people were killed during these 4 years of Khmer Rouge power, 21% of the entire population at the time.
Here there actually isn’t so much to see, but what you do see will stay with you forever. Taking the audio guide is a heart breaking must. Here you will hear first hand accounts to go with the grisly pieces of evidence scattered around the site. The things that hits you straight away is the silence here, the still and mournful atmosphere. The faces of shock and each person hears the same unbelievably cruel stories of the horrors that took places at Choeung Ek Phnom Penh and across the country.
The mass graves still make huge depressions in the ground here. Over 8,000 bodies have been removed from these graves so far and it is estimated many more remain in the area. Every time it rains here more bones, teeth and scraps of clothing are revealed. Even on a dry day as we walked around we saw many bones were sticking out of the soil that contains such much evidence of pain. Pieces of clothing were entwined with the roots of trees and teeth had been piled up for collection by the side of some pits. Seeing these things really brings into focus the reality of what happened here and the lives that were lost.
Probably the most sickening account we heard was from the killing tree at Choeung Ek Phnom Penh. My stomach turned as I heard stories of babies being smashed against its rugged bark until their brains were painted across it. Their mothers made to look on in anguish and heart break, only to be killed after they had suffered the ultimate loss. We were left speechless with the tales being told in our ears, tears rolling down our faces and we looked around and the stunned expressions of others hearing those same accounts.
Heading into the main stupa at the centre of the site we were greeted by the sight of 8,000 skulls staring back at us. The faces of those killed, bearing the scars of the trauma that took their lives. It was a hard thing to take in, to see these skulls as real. But as soon as you did it was too much to take, it felt like you were looking into the souls of these people, but in someways maybe that honours them and their lives. Who knows, its hard to know how to feel at such a grim sight before you. Thousands of sad and empty eyes looking back at you in despair, nothing I have seen before has come close to this.
S-21 Prison: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The next stop was back to the city to visit what is now a museum to the Cambodian Genocide. Originally a high school S-21 was turned from a place of hope into one of the ultimate horror. The prison was one of at least 150 execution centres in the country and over 20,000 people were killed in here alone.
The school rooms were converted into cramped and basic cells, with bars on the windows (for the rooms that had them), electric fences and special torture rooms. Each prisoner was photographed upon entering the prison, images eerily similar to those that had effected me so much as Auschwitz. Looking into the eyes of these people you could see their pain and suffering etched over their faces and their deep fear of what was to come.
Thousands were brought here on claims of espionage, for being educated or religious, for being associated with people of other nations or just under false suspicion. Many of the prisoners were tortured for days and forced to write confessions for things they hadn’t done. This was then used as justification for putting them to death, that is, if they survived the brutal torture methods. Within the cells you can still see blood stained tiles where many were killed and beaten, really quite a shocking sight. Here if the guards didn’t take your life the conditions which resulted in disease surely would.
For me the most shocking things I saw were the photos here. They made me feel physically sick and for Shorty it was just too much as he had to leave and sit down for a while. The photos the guards had taken of the dead bodies, the lives they had just taken. Laying there, eyes still open and covered in their own still warm blood. Their bodies emaciated and weak, their suffering at least had come to an end. Another was an unearthed mass grave, filled with water the pit had so many bones and skulls washed up on its edge, something I think I will always be able to see when I think of this horrific place.
Reflecting on an overwhelmingly moving day at Choeung Ek Phnom Penh
There isn’t really any words that can sum up seeing what we did here and hearing the stories of what can only be described as something from a horror film. But for us it is important that people who come to Cambodia see this place just as much as seeing Angkor Wat. The Cambodian people have been through so much, and to come out of it as some of the most warm and welcoming people we have ever met is a credit to them. To know and learn about these events is to better know the country and its suffering and in turn to help create a world of peace in which these things are not allowed to happen again.
The most sickening and upsetting element for me was how the world seems to repeat itself. People say never again about what happened with the Nazi’s during the second world war, but they don’t realise that is already has. Here and over in Bosnia and around the world today in places like Syria and Yemen. Often it seems that we pick and choose what we are outraged by, but people are people, all worth the same. Places like this just remind us how as a human race we should be working harder to stop the suffering happening right now.
Read about our experience in Auschwitz here:
Read about Bosnia here:
Choeung Ek: $6 (included audio guide)
S-21: $3 for Adults/ Free for student. $3 for Audio guide.
Choeung Ek: 11 miles from the city you can get a tuk tuk for around $15 for the day. We rented a scooter for $5.
S-21: Is in the city centre and walkable!
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