I am glad that I can now bear witness to the worst genocide that you probably don’t know much about. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over a struggling post-Vietnam War Cambodia. Pol Pot wanted to bring Cambodia back in time to become a completely agrarian and self sufficient society. He believed that Cambodia belonged to the peasant farmers, and that intellectual city dwellers were the cause of all problems. Within two days, everyone was forced out of their homes in cities and into rural farming areas. Without food or medicine, many people simply died. Others were sent to torture prisons and then killing fields to be murdered. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, and monks were killed. Just having eyeglasses or soft hands was enough to be sent to your death. Between 1976 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of over two million people.
In Phnom Penh, the killing fields are the main attraction. The casual manner in which tuk tuk drivers try to solicit you for a ride to the killing fields is uncomfortable and somewhat inappropriate. I have been to the concentration camps in Poland, and I can’t imagine taxi drivers incessantly haggling tourists for a trip to Auschwitz.
The tuk tuk ride to the Choeung Ek killing field is short. The field itself is small. It’s covered with empty pits that were once mass graves. People were trucked to the field, made to stand over their own grave, and hacked to death with farming tools because bullets were too expensive. The remains of roughly 9,000 people were found here at just one of the many killing fields throughout Cambodia.
The soil in these fields is still full of human bones. I actually had to watch where I was stepping to avoid bones that surfaced during rainy days. No separation exists between the visitor and the genocide. As unsettling as that was, these bones hardly have a human aspect to them anymore. I was more moved by seeing the collection of victims’ clothing; many of which belonged to children.
In the middle of Choeung Ek is a massive memorial stupa containing the skulls of 5,000 people. Each skull was labeled with the age of the victim and the way in which they were killed.
We all left the killing fields feeling upset, disgusted, and confused. I think that’s what you’re supposed to take away from a genocide. Genocide is inexplicable and incomprehensible. What’s important is you learn that it happened, tell the story to others, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. I began my week in Cambodia with an outlook that will change the way I see the country. I wonder what this poor third world nation would be like if 25% of its population wasn’t wiped out just 30 years ago.