The Killing Fields – Cambodia’s Painful History

Following the Cambodian Civil War, Cambodia was reigned by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979.  “The Killing Fields” refer to the various sites around Cambodia, where over 1 million people were brutally killed and buried by their own government during that time period.

Choeung Ek, a short ride out of Phnom Penh, is the most well-known of the aforementioned sites, where visitors can learn about Cambodia’s horrific past and view remnants of the mass genocide.

When we arrived at the entrance to Choeung Ek, we were each given headphones and an audio tour that would guide us around the memorial.  It included stories of victims of the Khmer Rouge and even an account of a former guard talking about what it was like to serve the Khmer Rouge and participate in the genocide.  It was deeply disturbing to listen to, but a part of Cambodia’s history that needs to be remembered and acknowledged by visitors.  The audio tour went into chilling details, and I’ve included photos of the signage for those interested in learning more about how things worked at Choeung Ek:

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All the prisoners could hear was the loud music and a loud generator running that drowned out the sounds of people dying.

Although the offices and buildings have been torn down, the graves, huge pits in the ground, are scattered all over the area.  They have been fenced off and covered with roofs for protection and visitors cover them in friendship bracelets to honor the victims.

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A mass grave full of friendship bracelets

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Children were swung by their feet and dashed against this tree. When it was first discovered, there were still remnants of blood and brain on the tree.

As we walked through the grounds we were warned by signs to avoid stepping on the scraps of clothing and bones that are still resurfacing today.

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A sign pointing out fragments of bone and teeth found on the ground
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And sign warning to not step on bone. The clothing on the ground is from a victim.

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Bones that have surfaced on the path

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The audio tour ended with the memorial stupa that sits in the very center, filled with over 5,000 human skulls of victims, including children.  The skulls were marked with colored dots that matched a key explaining how the victim in question was killed.

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The stupa in the center of the memorial
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The key explaining the manner of death of each victim, as evidenced by their skulls

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To continue our education of Cambodia’s grisly history, we moved on to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former security prison known as S-21.  Before it was converted into a prison, the site was actually a high school.  When the Khmer Rouge came into power they closed all schools (and pretty much everything else) because school was ‘unimportant.’  People were torn from their homes, jobs, schools, and even hospitals, regardless of their age or condition, and forced to work in the fields.  The prison also served as an execution center and saw as many as 20,000 prisoners killed.

Walking through the prison, many of the cells have been preserved and look the same as they did when they were in use.  The most luxurious cells were large rooms with a metal bed and a ‘case for excrement.’  The floors above were tiny cubicles made from brick or wood with nothing but shackles and a box.

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Walking the halls of S-21
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Doors to the cells
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An example of one of the large ground floor cells
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Shackles and excrement boxes
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Each cell has a large photograph of a victim that was imprisoned in a similar room.

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At first, many of the prisoners were associates of the previous regime, but later the party started turning on its own people out of paranoia.  Prisoners were heinously tortured until they confessed to the crimes they were accused of and even forced to condemn their own family members (who were then captured and imprisoned as well.)

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Brick cells
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The cramped conditions of the brick cells
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Chum Mey’s cell. One of only a handful of people to survive S-21
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The wooden cells
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The wooden cells were even smaller than the brick ones

Prisoners were subject to all kinds of horrific torture tactics and some of them were used for medical experimentation.  All of this was for the purpose of getting a confession out of the prisoners, and the guards were strictly forbidden from killing them before getting a confession.  Extreme measures, like daily body searches and electric barbed wire, were taken to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

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Barbed wire along the walls

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There were also very strict rules enforced on prisoners.  If they so much as took a sip of water without asking a guard first, they would get a severe beating.  There are only a few known survivors out of the ~17,000 people imprisoned.

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Frightening prison rules posted outside in the yard

After walking through the cells, we went into the display of photographs of all of the prisoners that included many women and children.  There were also graphic photographs of victims being tortured and the devices used were also on display.

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Every prisoner was photographed upon arrival at the prisoner, including all of these children

Visiting S-21 and Choeung Ek was a disturbing reminder of the horrors of humanity, but it was important for us to educate ourselves on Cambodia’s history.  Despite being such a horrific event, it doesn’t seem to be something most people know many details about, and we were grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about what happened here and why.

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Something to consider

Breakfast: $7

Tuk Tuk: $15

Choeung Ek Entrance: $12

Tuol Sleng Entrance: $6

Dinner: $10

Top Banana: $2.50

Accommodation: $16

Total Spending: $68.50