“It is better to kill an innocent by mistake, then to allow an enemy to go free by mistake”- Pol Pot
If you’re going to be in Phnom Penh, make sure you allow time to visit Toul Slang and Choeung Ek, better known as The Killing Fields. During the time the Khmer Rouge was in power in Cambodia, 1.7 million people were killed, many of them in execution areas like this. That’s 21% of the population of the country.
There are hundreds of killing fields all over Cambodia, but Choeung Ek is the largest, and was chosen for the site of the Cambodian Genocide Museum.
When you enter the gate at Choeung Ek, you pay for your ticket (I believe it was about $4USD per person) and get a small audio player with head set, so you can take the audio tour as you walk around the grounds.
At each stop, numbered 1-18, you learn more about the things that happened at Choeung Ek, and there are also additional recordings you can listen to, of people telling their stories about life under the Khmer Rouge.
It is very hard to walk around the grounds and listen to the audio tour, and picture all of the horrible things that happened there. It made me feel sick to my stomach, even though it is a very green and peaceful place now, there are still reminders of the atrocities that occurred there surfacing through the dirt.
Because so many people were buried in the mass graves, even though many of them were re-buried once the Khmer Rouge regime fell, and Choeung Ek was discovered, teeth and bone fragments, and scraps of the victims clothing can be seen all over the ground, especially after a big rain storm. The staff at Choeung Ek goes around every few weeks to pick up these fragments and place them in sanctified collection cases.
The audio tour describes how people were transported to Choeung Ek, and then herded over to pits, where they were killed, usually by blunt force trauma. Bullets were expensive, so they weren’t used.
The most horrible thing at Choeung Ek, for me, was the killing tree. In order to kill babies with the least effort, and without using bullets, Khmer Rouge soldiers would lift them by the feet, bash their heads into the tree, and then throw them into the nearby pit.
It is very difficult to visit the Killing Fields, and to be face to face with the absolute worst of humankind, but it is important to understand what those people went through, and to give them the respect of acknowledging that these things really did happen.
It also makes you angry though, and really reinforces the point that things like this are still happening in countries all over the world. It seems like there should be more that we can do to stop it now, while it’s happening, instead of waiting 40 years to visit the museum.
You can learn more about Choeung Ek here.