Following on from the horrors of the S21 Prison, we visited The Killing Fields, also in Cambodia.
At first glance, we arrived to greenery, trees in bloom and peace. But only 40 years ago The Killing Fields were home to millions of mass murders at the hands of Pol Pott. We visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, which are about 11 miles outside of Phnom Penh. Many of the victims murdered here were previously prisoners at the S21 Prison, also known as The Tual Sleng Detention Centre.
Today Choeung Ek is a memorial site, a place for Cambodians and foreigners alike to pay their respects and learn about the history here. Steve and I did a headphone tour, and walked in silence around the site listening to stories from survivors, from guards who were captured when it came to light and about the techniques they used to murder the victims.
Victims were brought to the killing fields under cover of the darkness of the night. Usually, the victims were executed upon arrival, however the numbers of victims soon increased to 200 a day! 200!! This lead to a detention centre being built, with walls 2 thick to prevent any light getting in so prisoners could not see eachother. They would then be executed the following day.
Victims were killed in multiple ways, by hanging, with axes, knives and bamboo sticks, and thrown into ‘pits’ around the fields. The bodies of 8985 people have been exhumed from the pits, however when you walk around you may still spot bones or bits of clothing that have been washed to the surface by the rain. We saw a set of teeth in the mud when we arrived, bringing forward the horrific realisation that these were real people. Real events. Real murders.
In one area of the fields stands a tree. A thick tree which is now covered in hundreds of string bracelets and money from mourners showing their respects. But this tree was once known as the killing tree. Victims, usually children and babies, would be held by the feet and swung into the tree, smashing their skulls against the solid bark. The bodies were then thrown into a pit next to the tree to rot. Load music would be played over speakers, to hide the screams of the victims to any passerbys.
Signposts stand where significant buildings once stood, explaining what was once there. One signpost signifies a building where chemicals were once stored. These chemicals would be poured over the dead victims in the pits, to eliminate the stench of rotting flesh, but also to ensure there were no surviving victims.
One of the last landmarks on the tour is The Memorial Stupa, a big white building that stands in the middle of the fields. The Stupa was erected in 1988 and holds more than 8000 skulls behind it’s glass windows. The skulls are arranged into age and sex segments. Many of the skulls have been smashed in, and a colour code of dots shows you how the victims died. You can go into the Stupa and pay your respects. A Cambodian man was selling flowers outside which you could buy to leave.
The tour of the killing fields is truly heartbreaking. Along with the tour of the S21 Prison. To think it was only 40 years ago that millions of innocent Cambodians were murdered. But that is the aim of the memorial sites, to spread the word about what once happened here, and to prevent it happening again. The sites are attracting more and more tourists each year, wanting to learn about Cambodian history. I’d definately recommend visiting the memorial sites, as no matter how much you read online, or if you watch the film based on the killing fields, nothing will compare to the true heartbreak of being in the place it once happened. Listening to real survivors stories as you stand in the peacefulness of the greenery, unable to believe that something so horrific could have happened there not so long ago.
And to all the victims of the genocide war, may you rest in peace.