The Horrors of the Choeung Ek Killing Fields

One of the most touching tours of my trip through Southeast Asia was the Choeung Ek killing fields of Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. An emotional experience I must confess, as I had no idea about what happened until I visited.

One way to learn about Cambodia’s recent past and to prevent such acts of cruelty from being repeated is to visit this site of extreme horror. “Be quiet please” indicates the plaque at the entrance to the Choeung Ek killing fields, an extensive and well-tended lawn signalled with wooden slabs and a memorial whose roof reflects the style of the local temples.  The weather here is sad and heavy, but more horrible are the stories I heard next, told by the soft voice of an audio guide distributed at the entrance of the enclosure.

Apprehensive of what I would see next, I pressed the play button and remained sober throughout the narration of a little more than four hours on the stories of that place.

Before continuing with the descriptions of the tour, I think it’s respectful to share some paragraphs with you about the Cambodian revolution and what it felt like learning about the killing fields for the first time and how.

Killing fields of Cambodia
Killing fields of Cambodia
Killing fields of Cambodia

A bit of context

The Cambodian revolution began on April 17, 1975, with the evacuation of more than 2 million people from Phnom Pehn. The capital was deserted, and families were randomly divided and sent to the forced labour camps to plant rice fields and dig irrigation channel; the goal was to make Cambodia a 100% agrarian society and to double rice production overnight, something that never happened.

As young men were trained to join the militia, older men, women, and children from the age of 6 were forced to work about 18 hours a day and were given small portions of food in exchange for forced labour. The pace imposed on the peasants was so hard that thousands of Cambodians suffered the hardest of deaths: hunger.

All Western consumer goods were destroyed, money was abolished, and all real estate belonged to the state. Then Pol Pot, the leader of the movement began arresting and murdering all citizens who possessed any education: doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc. were arrested and killed along with all family members to avoid any future rematch. Most of the murders occurred in the Phnom Phen concentration camps.

The death toll of the Cambodian regime is unknown, an estimated 1.7 to 2 million people (~ 25% of the population at the time) had been executed in one of the most cruel regimes in history.

Graves from the killing fields

The visit to the extermination camps

The Killing Fields has only two buildings: a memorial to the victims of the genocide and a small museum with objects of the time. The climate is heavy and zero friendly, but rather reflects the harsh history that Cambodia has survived.

The audio guide

Right at the entrance visitors receive the audio guide and push the play button to plunge into the world of barbarities of an extremist regime that had existed. There are 18 different parades demarcated by wooden plaques that tell a little of what existed on the site during the times of the Khmer Rouge.

The first stop of the day is where the truck full of tied and bandaged prisoners would leave them. One by one, the prisoners were taken away by the “Khmer soldiers” and to save the bullets – something expensive at the time – were murdered in brutal ways like stonework on the head, hanging, cutting of throats were also done with the help of a local plant, or blows of hammer or of bamboo poles. Pretty brutal and even a little surreal.

Stories of survivors

Item 12 of the audio guide has 9 different stories, sad stories that will help you understand a little of what went on in Cambodia during those dark years. To hear the stories, I took a walk around the lake, but nothing helped ease the sadness and the agony.

Common troughs full of bones

Back on the walk, we were led through the poorly dug holes of the mass graves that housed hundreds of bodies (many of the large parts of these bodies were excavated and are now displayed in the memorial).

Some of the holes were demarcated and surrounded with bamboo racks. These ditches have plaques indicating the number of buried bodies, one of which has hundreds of headless bodies, another has bare bodies … and all have been decorated with coloured bracelets, a solemn tribute to those buried there.

Unfortunately, not all bodies had the chance to go to the memorial or earn a demarcated grave. During the journey you will see dozens of little bones that are still under the earth, wanting to gradually get out.

cambodias past

A tree as the stage of assassinations

Beside one of the pits is a large, beautiful tree, which is until you hear it conceals a terrible story. This tree served as support for hurling infants and young children to death. The Khmer Rouge believed that the best way to avoid future revenge was to murder the whole family, so little children and infants were not spared from extermination. On hearing this, my heart became small, aching and even now I struggle to understand how anyone could do such a cruel thing. What a tremendous ordeal.

Boxes with the clothes & bones of victims

On the visit, you’ll see the boxes full clothes from the dead, and boxes with bones. A sad and tense atmosphere, accompanied by the terrible explanations of the audio guide.

The magic tree

To relieve the noises of this brutality and not to frighten even the bandaged prisoners who were lined up to be killed afterwards, a loud volume box played an incessant musical melody. The magic of the tree was to camouflage the sad noises of brutal extermination.

The museum of the killing fields

The museum of the killing fields is quite small, but it has interesting things like photos of the movement’s leaders, uniforms used by the Khmer Rouge and the most common weapons used to assassinate the prisoners. The museum also has a small cinema that from time to time displays a film about Cambodia and the killing fields.

cambodia past

Memorial of genocide

And finally, we arrived at the commemorative stupa, built to preserve the memory of the victims of the extermination. A building whose roof refers to the temples of Cambodia.

The memorial contains hundreds of bones (skulls are catalogued by type of death) and clothing of some victims protected by thick plates of glass. This memorial is the end point of the visit and the beginning of a reflection in my heart on how to prevent such genocides from happening in other parts of the world.

In conclusion, not everything we see on our trips is nice. In Cambodia, a must-visit is the killing fields in Phnom Penh. As highlighted above, this site has its share of horror to tell and is also termed as one of the cruellest places in the country’s history

killing fields

Please take a minute to say a prayer for those that were taken and those left behind that had to witness this ordeal.

There is also a film that I would like you to go and watch ”First They Killed My Father”