Phnom Phen – Part 3 of 4 – Killing Fields

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I know very little about the history surrounding the genocides committed in Cambodia in the 1970’s. The reasons for war never seem to make much difference when faced with the horror of it. I do have the stories I was told and how they affected me. And they did affect me.

The car door magically swung open and two little brown hands shot towards my lap; palms up and hopeful. I’d been preoccupied thinking about Won’s stories and wasn’t expecting another challenge of the heart. Outside the car I was surrounded by beautiful, three foot, skin and bone children so anxious and hopeful that I had something for them. Each had a well practiced, well pronounced English phrase that cut through me.


“Take your picture! One dollar! Take your picture!” “Just one dollar please! One dollar please!” “Please mister, please mister…”

I held my thumbs in my daypack straps, elbows up and waded through. With tightly pursed lips and a sorry smile I made a mental list of my good deeds, hoping for escape from pressing guilt. I struggled with not knowing what to do and gave them nothing. I felt unbeaten, but empty. I still have no idea how to handle a situation like that. Sadly I’ll have plenty of chances to figure it out this year.


At the entrance a tall white tower stands awkwardly modern. “Maybe it’s a Wat”, I thought while looking at the way people were gathered around. An afternoon sun reflected off the doors and as Won lead us by, I squinted my eyes watching it travel with me. When it passed the windows became clear the sight of 8000 human skulls stopped me. Stacey too. “Oh my god…” she whispered in a falling tone.“What the..?” I mouthed with dry lips. I felt weight on my body. The reality of it was overwhelming. Won had us continue, saying we would see the skulls last. I didn’t want to wait. Nothing else would hold my interest, I was too distracted now.

We stopped to view a map and read the history of the extermination camp. The English version was a mess of grammar and comprehension, but the pain and anger of the author and his people transcended strongly. For some sense of reference, the story as I have attempted to understand it is this.

In the early 1970’s a communist guerilla group called the Khmer Rouge and led by a general named Pol Pot, was fighting to enslave Cambodia into a classless, cultureless and mindless nation. Their approach was to take over the cities first and in effect kill off all the educated people who posed the greatest threat to their plan. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the capital city of Phnom Phen and forced everyone out into the flat, hot land.

The system was as deceptive as it was horrific. Home by home, people were led away, their families intentionally being split up. They were usually just told they had to move out of the cities. Upon arrival at the camps they were forced to stay, tortured and immediately put to work digging massive ditches, not knowing these would soon serve as their graves. The Khmer Rouge banned basically everything; stores, banks, hospitals, schools, religion, family. Prisoners were forced to work all waking hours, everyday. Children were taken from their family to work as soldiers. The enslaved were sometimes fed water with a bit of rice, but many died of starvation. Newborn to elderly, age made no difference. Nor did the reason.

Often they targeted educated people or different ethnic groups, but thousands were also killed for reasons like showing sympathy or not working hard enough. The killing was aimless. Won told us stories of farmers being dragged to the fields and asked if they were a teacher. When they replied “no”, they were beaten and asked again. This continued until, on the edge of life and understanding, the victims would lie and answer “yes” hoping for relief. But of course would find only death and usually by the strike of a shovel or some other coverted farming tool, since guns were only to be used for intimidation. Pol Pot had actually given orders to save the bullets , since they were much too expensive and were better used for fighting the opposing neighbors in Vietnam .

Today the Killing Fields are a government run museum, but the standards for hallowed grounds in Cambodia are far different than found in the western world. I expected that every piece of human body and clothing would by now be removed and given proper resting place, but found proper to be a cultural perspective. Whether the graphic reminder is important to the Cambodian people or the remains are just too many, I’m not sure. But much of the land is the same way it was when the atrocities were discovered in the late 1970’s. It wasn’t until Won pointed beneath my feet that I learned the debris I was standing over were the bones and clothing of tortured and murdered Cambodians. On cut tree stumps sat piles of human femurs and ribs, placed there after being unearthed by heavy rains. Along the walking paths, outfits that had been worn for weeks straight through torture and death were being exposed from the earth. Into many ditches were burried hundreds of bodies and now thirty years later, decay has caused the ditches to sink back in revealing the disturbing organization of genocide.

Many children were killed with bare hands. Those small enough were swung by their ankles against trees until beaten lifeless. We came to one of these trees, the trunk now thicker and older, but as Won pointed out, the signs of its use are still evident. He showed us another tree that had palms serrated like a saw. These were used to decapitate political figures and other well known prisoners, for their heads could be saved as evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s success . On yet other trees were mounted loud speakers that blared music night and day, so people in the city would not be alarmed by the screams. Won says nobody in Phnom Phen new what was happening in the killing fields.

The Khmer Rouge rule went on for years and eventualy the Cambodians figured out it was happening. Many fled into the fields and the remote villages, but it was not a sure escape. The communists’ takeover spread to the wide lands. Sick twisted soldiers searched for “new people”, a name they used for city dwellers that had moved out into the countryside.

“But how did the Khmer Rouge know the difference between the ‘new people’ and the ‘old people’” I asked Won.

“That’s easy.” he said. “They ask the children.”

Soldiers would find kids alone, ask them what their parents did and then follow them home. Parents would be taken to camps and their children either killed or turned into communist soldiers. Many of the murderers were young teenagers, brainwashed and transformed into literal demons.

By the time we got back to the front of the park at the tower of skulls, bus loads of people had gathered around. Most of the crowd was monks dressed in white, all waiting patiently for a look at the most vivid image of human atrocity I hope I ever see. The doors to the tower were open as well as the inner glass cases containing the skulls. I was numb from the gravity of it all, but camera in hand entered the tower to join a few other close lookers. The skulls were arranged as if on display for sale. On the first shelf they sat aligned in neat, orderly rows and on the levels above, stacked atop each other, like crates and crates full of back-stock. They were so empty and lifeless. I took effort to imagine all the faces they once were, but when did it became too much.

I’ve wondered if we are better served by distancing ourselves from gripping history or by making sure it stays fresh in our mind. Of course the more vivid images stick around longer, but does this make us more empathetic? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, the Killing Fields are the Cambodian people’s way of remembering and showing the world what happened to them. Whether or not it’s too much, I think it’s important to see. And although it was uncomfortable, this is why I got awkwardly close to take pictures. I hope you see something that Stacey and I saw.

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