Nothing can prepare you for The Killing Fields of Cambodia.

21st-22nd September 2018

Nothing can prepare you for The Killing Fields.

I’d seen some of the movies; I’d read some books. But no versions of the truth made more palatable and less gruesome for the wide-screen audience, or left to avid readers’ vivid imagination, come anywhere close to walking through the grounds where so many Cambodians were brutally and mercilessly executed during the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.  There are several such sites within Cambodia, but the best-known mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge, Choeung Ek, is situated about 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. 

Having barely digested the horrors of the Vietnam War after visiting the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum in Saigon only a few days before, Liz and I set off early on a grey morning, befitting our sombre destination.  It is not something we look forward to, but a must.  As a matter of fact, the Cambodian government and the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia(*)) encourage visits to The Killing Fields and former prisons such as Tuol Sleng: a lesson in history to prevent similar atrocities in the future.

Set in a former orchard and Chinese graveyard, the now peaceful surroundings belie the cruelty of the site’s recent history.  Numerous dips in the greenery mark the mass graves excavated to date; a polite notice reminds us not to stray of the paths, lest we should step on not-yet uncovered or recovered remains.  Human bones still litter the site, as during every rainy season more bones and skulls are exposed when the gush of the downpours washes away soil.

We walk through the grounds in silence, accompanied by the words of a former Khmer Rouge guard, narrating his story through the headphones of our audio guide.  And you cannot stop wondering about those guards’ humanity.  How can one human being inflict such gratuitous horror onto another human being?  But often Khmer Rouge cadres and officers themselves only had one stark choice: obey the orders or be at the receiving end themselves.

But no more macabre a legacy than the Killing Tree.  Whereas adult prisoners were executed in all kinds of cruel manners whilst loud music blared out of loudspeakers to muffle the cries and moans, small children were killed by bashing their heads against the tree as their mothers were made to watch.  Bullets were expensive and the noise of gun shots could be heard outside the perimeter of the camp, so the executioners availed themselves of whatever tools they could lay their hands on.

Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial marked by a buddhist stupa, housing many of the skeletal remains found in the mass graves.  The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls.  Many have been shattered or smashed in.

Buddhist monks regularly attend the stupa to pray for the souls of the thousands of victims, joined by visitors and relatives of the people who perished there. It is a solemn moment and you cannot help being swept up in its enormity.  The sheer scale of the genocide, in which around a quarter of the Cambodian population was exterminated, and the horrific manner in which it was carried out, are overwhelming.

Although most tour packages in Phnom Penh combine a visit to The Killing Fields with a tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Liz and I decide not to take up our tuk-tuk driver’s offer for taking us there in the afternoon.  Somehow it seems too much to bear in one day and we cannot stomach it.

With only a few days for Phnom Penh on our itinerary, we walk to the Genocide Museum the next day. It’s not far from our hotel and gives us time to muster up the courage…

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is set in a former secondary school, the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, and was used by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise in power in 1975 to its fall in 1979 as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21).  In that time, at least 20,000 people were detained and tortured there until they signed confessions to ‘crimes’ they never committed before being sent to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Tuol Sleng, an education centre turned into an interrogation centre, was just one of at least 150 such torture and execution centres. 

At first, most of the victims were from the previous, ousted Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers.  In fact, anyone who was deemed to have had an education or understood a foreign language was regarded as the enemy. An estimated 90% of artists, intellectuals and teachers were killed in an effort to return the country to “Year Zero” – Pol Pot’s vision of a classless, agrarian society.  Later, the Khmer Rouge leaders’ paranoia turned to its own members; country-wide purges resulted in thousands of party activists,  including some high-ranking communist politicians,  and their families being brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

To ensure prisoners could not escape, the school buildings were encircled by barbed wire and windows were fitted with metal bars.  Some classrooms were divided into tiny individual cells for special prisoners; others had iron shackles fixed to the floors to stop detainees from being able to move around as they were crowded into the space.   Some classroom were used as torture chambers; the metal bed frames only meant to tie prisoners down whilst being beaten… 

The purpose of the torture, which included any means imaginable but too horrific to describe here, was to extract confessions, not to kill.  Most prisoners would remain incarcerated at S-21 for about two or three months, others who were deemed more ‘valuable’ might have survived longer.  All were continuously subjected to torture.  Medical treatment was administered for the sole purpose of keeping people alive until they had signed their confession. Most were subsequently murdered in The Killing Fields, killed by a team of teenage executioners.  Only a handful survived.

Photograph taken just after the Vietnamese liberation of Phnom Penh. Many S-21 prisoners were killed in the last few hours before the Vietnamese entered the prison.

As the Vietnamese troops closed in to liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the guards did not want to leave any loose ends or witnesses.  Some prisoners were taken along with them; others were executed where they lay. 

Only seven adult prisoners are known to have survived the Khmer Rouge imprisonment in S-21. One of the survivors, a car mechanic, believes he was spared because his skills were useful; another survivor, Bou Meng, was an artist and had painted a portrait of Pol Pot himself. Both are still alive and spend every day in the centre to remind people of what happened. They even have a little stall outside where they make a modest living selling their autobiographies. Inside, Bou Meng’s paintings of the brutal torture methods make a chilling contribution to the exhibits in a room dedicated to the instruments of torture used by the Khmer Rouge.

A painting by Bou Meng © Kirstie Brewer (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33096971)

The most haunting room of the Museum houses a gallery of portraits. Row upon row of countless headshots taken of the prisoners when they first arrived. Men, women, teenagers, children. I did not take any photographs; it felt disrespectful at the time. But ultimately, it is their only legacy and the only way in which their stories can be told and their voices be heard. Whatever happened to each one of them afterwards has been lost to the whispers and anonymity of the mass graves of The Killing Fields. One can barely imagine the horrors.

Source: AFP (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33096971)

If Liz and I had felt unsettled after our visit to Choeung Ek, coming face to face with the depravity of man at Tuol Sleng is even more disturbing. And still, as one of the survivors of S-21 remarked in an interview for the BBC News Magazine: “If those guards hadn’t tortured a false confession out of me, they would have been executed – I can’t say I would have behaved any differently [in their position]” ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33096971 ).

(*) ECCC: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, commonly known as the Cambodia Tribunal or Khmer Rouge Tribunal, is a court established in 1997 to try the most senior responsible members of the Khmer Rouge for alleged violations of international law and serious crimes perpetrated during the Cambodian genocide. To date only three former Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted and sentenced. Most of those responsible for the killings, including Pol Pot, died before they could be tried.

On 16th November 2018, an article in The Guardian online read :

The two most senior Khmer Rouge leaders still alive today have been found guilty of genocide, almost 40 years since Pol Pot’s brutal communist regime fell, in a verdict followed by millions of Cambodians.

Nuon Chea, 92, who was second-in-command to Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 87, who served as head of state, were both sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out between 1977 and 1979, in what is a landmark moment for the Khmer Rouge tribunals. The pair are already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity.

As senior figures in the Khmer regime, the court declared both men responsible for murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation imprisonment, torture, persecution on religious, racial and political grounds, enforced disappearances and mass rape through the state policy of forced marriages .‘ […..]

[In 2010] the first life sentence was handed to Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, who ran S-21 concentration camp in Phnom Penh where at least 14,000 people were tortured and killed. In 2014, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were then found guilty of crimes against humanity.

Their second trial, for genocide and mass rape, drew to a close in June last year but the verdict has taken 18 months to reach by the panel of three Cambodian and two international judges.’

(read the full article at : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/16/khmer-rouge-leaders-genocide-charges-verdict-cambodia)

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