The Killing Fields
In this post I give a brief synopsis of The Killing Fields history and then give a view of my own experience there. I would urge you to read this to learn about the horrors that occurred in this country, but some of what I explain and write here is about brutally violent and heart-shaking moments.
I recently visited both the Killing Fields and S-21 in a naive belief that I would be unaffected and would easily be able to jump back on the backpacking trip. However, I was quite wrong. To help with the understanding of the piece below, allow me to give a brief history of what happened in Cambodia in the late 1970’s. When the country was doing less than well, and being given support by outside countries, the dictator Pol Pot came into power and began his plan for a completely independent Cambodia. To do this, he demanded a return to simple labor and a rooting of all arts, culture, and higher intellectual endeavors. What his plans entailed were a 300% increase in rice farming, a cut-off from all outside countries, and the “removal” of those he deemed a threat. At certain points Pol Pot demanded that anyone with glasses be taken and killed, all artists be killed, or all musicians be killed. His exterminations of the creative and intelligent communities were kept secretive and in done in small camps, such as Cheoung-Ek (The Killing Fields). By the time he was done, he had brutally killed 1/4 of his own countrymen. Can you imagine 1/4 of the people in your country vanishing over a few years? Can you imagine 1/4 of your friends being savagely killed in the next few years? This is what happened in Cambodia.
The True Face of Evil
As our Tuk-tuk drove over dusty roads, the four of us in the back covered our mouths and beards with dust-masks, making us look like scruffy surgeons. We joked about how depressed we would all be afterwards, “I’ll probably need a beer tonight, or six” I joked to the Chilean couple across from me. We passed by the Khmer Brewing Factory, “It’s a good thing that is so close then,” he joked back pointing towards the brewery. The large Belgian to my left who hadn’t spoken since we left the hostel chimed in, “Maybe we should go there first.” We all smiled the last smile of our day.
Walking through the large metal gates of the Killing Fields we were handed audio recordings that would guide us along the path as we walked. Each audio piece pierced our hearts with atrocities committed and survivors telling their gruesome stories of survival: A woman had been raped 12 times in a night, and then had to run away from her village because of the shame her neighbors cast upon her. A man’s head was bashed in on the street for possibly having stolen a banana; a single banana. Further accounts pour out from the two foam speakers on my ears, and with each story my stomach begins to clench and my heart weighs down with empathetic sorrow. Although the bones have been removed, the ditches in the ground hold memories from only decades ago: “16 men beheaded and thrown into a pit.” I sit under a palm tree to recompose myself and a nearby sign states that the thin thorns of the palm tree were used to slice the throats of men and women; I decide to move. I learn the true meaning of “ignorance is bliss” when I come upon a large tree with small wristbands covering almost the entire base: “Here is where soldiers held babies by the legs and smashed their heads against this tree.” My body wretches and I head to the nearest bathroom, how can such evil exist in the world? As I exit the bathroom and head back to the trail I find teeth along the side of the path. The Khmer Rouge didn’t use guns because bullets were too expensive, farming tools were a much easier way to kill. The audio journey ended in front of a small white building that towers above the rest of the Killing Fields. As you walk into the center of the tower, skulls fill a glass case that towers higher than you can possibly see. As I stand in front of the skulls I wonder what their names were, I wonder what they had liked to do in life, I wonder if they had even had a chance to know happiness before their murder. Standing before a thousand murders I begin to wonder how many buildings in Cambodia are built upon the dead; a sobering thought. As we leave the Killing Fields, the four of us don’t speak, all of our words have been left behind the gate where we entered. There are no jokes on the way back.
As the Tuk-tuk slows to a crawl and stops, I am relieved to be back at the hostel and to go to sleep, I am completely drained from what I have seen. I stop to take in my surroundings and realize that we are not at the hostel, instead the driver has taken us to S-21. S-21, a large concrete school surrounded by pinwheels of barbed wire. Pictures of beaten and killed Cambodians line the walls of the small brick stalls they were kept in. I wonder if they had even been able to lay down in such a small area. The next room contains written confessions of false crimes beaten out of the imprisoned. How could someone do this to their own countrymen? How could someone do this to anyone? By the time I get to the room full of torture devices I can no longer move, I’ve seen enough. I had thought that I would be unaffected, and I had certainly not ever thought that I wouldn’t be able to complete the day. I sat on a small park bench and watched a bird perch on a pull-up bar that kids must have played on before the metal wire had gone up; before the rope swings had been turned into a torture device that hung its victims. This is the perfect symbol for the genocide in Cambodia: a place of learning transformed into one large torture device. I begin to cry for the second time today. Before we leave I head into one more building that houses information on the top political figures of the Khmer Rouge. As I read the boards my tears turn to rage. Not only did Pol Pot get to live for 20 years after he committed this genocide, the top five people in his administration still have not been punished. Justice is a luxury in this world.
I started my day joking about drinking beers. I ended my day broken in so many ways. The Killing Fields and S-21 pushed the limits of what I believed were the atrocious and nefarious boundaries of mankind’s evil nature. I didn’t know we were capable of this. More so, I don’t think I wanted to know we were capable of this. The night I returned, a hundred foreign tourists flooded the rooftop bar of the hostel I was staying at to drink and party until dawn. I felt disgusted and promptly left the next morning. Two days after I left Phnom Penh, I still felt saddened and bitter. I felt myself quickly becoming more cynical to the human race. However, that morning as I was speaking with an elderly South African woman over coffee, the story of my lost travel wallet came up. It was at that moment that I remembered that the extreme amount of altruism from a stranger I was shown that day reminded me of the innate good in people. Humans are an innately good and an astoundingly evil species, and I think it is of paramount importance to not think of one without acknowledging the other.
Stay: Mad Monkey – $5 dorm w/ air con and a free drink
Eat: 1) Everest Indian Food – $4-$8. Try the Garlic Nan! 2) Feel Good Coffee – $3-$6. Best Cup of Coffee in Phnom Penh
Do: Take a tour to see the National Monument, The Killing Fields, S-21, and the palace.