By Christiana Mecca, Staff Photographer and Writer
It was fitting the day was grey. Going into “The Killing Fields,” I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to see.
You travel the same roads out of Phom Penh the thousands of victims traveled from S-21 Prison, except you’re riding in an open-air tuk-tuk in broad daylight and not blindfolded in the back of a crowded truck during the night. You get out of the vehicle and listen on your headset to the story of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and events at this remote and eerie location only three and a half decades ago.
The Cambodian genocide occurred from the years of 1975 to 1979. It started as an attempt by the Khmer Rouge army leader, Pol Pot, to form a Communist peasant farming society. It resulted in a great number of deaths from starvation, overwork and executions. Over the course of three years, it is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed 3.3 million people.
There really is no way to give the full effect of an event to an outsider, but the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center does a good job of bringing you close to the stories and memories. When you arrive, you receive headphones and an audio device to walk you through the site. You begin where the prisoners began, at the truck stop, then move through the detainment space and the check-in area (the Khmer Rouge made sure to double check the whereabouts of each victim – there would be no escaping) and into the huge area of mass graves. Roped off are a few that still churn up bone fragments, teeth and cloth.
For some reason, hearing the words with Cambodian accents directly in your ears makes it more real and personal. The marked-off mass graves are lined with bamboo fencing and thousands of bracelets hang on the posts as little symbols of respect and remembrance of the dead.
You then walk around the lake listening to stories of survivors, not of the killing fields, but of the S-21 prison. There were no survivors of the killing fields. If whatever tool the Khmer Rouge guards used for slaughtering (usually farming tools or hammers) didn’t accomplish its goal, DDT would finish the job. Individuals would kneel in front of the hole, blindfolded, and be forced to sing songs of the regime before being hacked, beaten or stabbed to death and falling into their grave.
Children are another story. Pol Pot believed that in order to be successful in offing a “traitor,” the accused person’s whole family must also be killed, or else there would be someone left to seek revenge. That’s where the “Killing Tree” comes in. After the infants, toddlers and small children were beaten at this tree, they were thrown into the mass grave with their mothers.
It wasn’t easy to see but it was well worth the experience. Not only did I gain knowledge of Cambodia’s history, but also endless respect for the people who lived through it.