NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS IMAGES AND DESCRIPTIONS THAT SOME MAY FIND DISTURBING
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are not a place that everyone would choose to visit, despite being firmly on the tourist trail in Phnom Penh. But this is part of the recent history of Cambodia, still vivid in the memories of its older generation, and if they can’t run away from that past then arguably nor should we.
I started our day thinking that it might feel inappropriate to take photos here and at Tuol Sleng, the Geocide museum; but as we started to explore I realised that I felt strongly that it was important not only to take but to share them. I understand however if you would prefer not to see them; in that case you are welcome to stop reading at this point.
I shared a brief history of the Khmer Rouge period in my earlier post about Tuol Sleng so I won’t repeat it here. But do read it, or read the history up elsewhere; it’s so important to understand how these appalling events came about.
During the Khmer Rouge regime more than 17,000 civilians were killed and buried in mass graves in this former orchard a few miles from Phnom Penh. Most of them were transported here after detention and torture in Toul Sleng. The site, and others like it elsewhere in the country, became known as the Killing Fields. The prisoners were made to wait here for up to 24 hours before they were killed by a blow to the head after which their throats were slit. Babies were killed by bashing their heads against a tree. There were separate graves for men, for women and for children.
After the collapse of the regime the full horrors of what happened here became apparent; and in 1980 the remains of 8,985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed from 85 mass graves, while 43 of the 129 graves discovered were left untouched.
On arriving our guide Van gave us a thorough description of the site first before leaving us to look around on our own. It was clear that she still found it very unsettling to visit these places. But at the same time she obviously felt it was important that visitors are shown them and taught about the country’s recent past.
The memorial stupa
After Van’s talk we went to pay our respects at the memorial stupa. We bought flowers and incense to place as an offering for those who were so brutally killed here.
The memorial holds the bones of the bodies excavated from the mass graves, carefully preserved and displayed according to gender, age and method of execution. According to Buddhist teaching it is important that the dead are acknowledged in some way; and these excavations were the Cambodian way of showing that these people were all individuals even though they were buried en masse.
From the stupa we went to the small museum where Van had told us a short film would be shown at 10.10.
This covered much of what she had already told us but also included some moving interviews with a couple of men who had lost family members here and one who had been involved in the first discovery, soon after liberation, of the atrocities committed here.
The Killing Fields
We then followed a walking route around the site. Van had already described all the main points on this tour, and there were information signs at each. We saw the spots where previously the detention building stood, and the one that housed the executioners. Many of these were just young children who had been easily brainwashed by the regime into believing that these people were enemies, spies etc., and had to be killed.
The path led between the excavated mass graves, now just grassy hollows. One particularly horrifying spot was signposted as the grave where the bodies of naked women and children were found. The other graves all had scraps of clothing, which have been saved along with the bones of those buried there. The care and empathy with which this has been done is testament to the present generation’s desire to honour those who were killed here and preserve their memory.
A nearby tree, now festooned with friendship bracelets and ribbons, and at least one rosary, was found on liberation to be smeared with blood, and worse. Here babies were killed by having their heads bashed against it before being tossed into the grave with their mothers.
Perhaps making these scenes all the more horrific to recall is the fact that this feels such tranquil spot, with a small pool dotted with lotus blooms and many shady old trees. It was formerly a Chinese cemetery; and although the Khmer Rouge destroyed that when they took over the site for their mass executions, a few old gravestones remain.
A local perspective
When we re-joined Van at the entrance there was time for a cold drink and some further conversation about the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and the impacts that are still felt today, especially by the older generation. She told us that on the days she brings tourists here she doesn’t tell her mother where she has been; it would be too upsetting for her. But for herself she feels it is an important part of her job to tell people about these things in the hope that they may not be repeated in the future.
As she talked about the fact that all school classes (secondary school age) are brought here to be shown these sights for themselves in the same hope, I remembered our visit to the Peace Park in Hiroshima a few years earlier. We had met many groups of school children who were taken there for just the same reason. Cambodia and Japan seem to think alike in their commitment to telling the story of the past in order to avoid its repetition in the future.
I visited Cambodia in 2020