Cambodian Killing Fields, yesterday and today

Killing Fields stupa: 17 stories of human bone fragments (Photos by Tom Fox)

It was between 1975 and 1978 the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, evacuated Phnom Penh and began their merciless, ideologically driven, killing. Before they were overthrown three years later, they had executed between 2 and 3 million Cambodians.

The theory called for a farmer led socialist revolution. This ended up meaning that anything that connected one to the “urban elite,” education, commercial or government job, even eyeglasses and in some cases, teeth fillings, put you on the list to be executed.

Society would start over – fresh – from year one with the farmers in control. That was the theory. It was brutal. In fact, a relative few in the new ruling class used the ideology to serve their own self-interests.

Prisons were erected, but soon they were overflowing. The solution? Extermination camps. One of the better know was 15 kilometers outside of the Phnom Penh capitol, at Choeung Ek, once of former Chinese cemetery.

Week after week, month after month, prisoners were transported from the S-21 prison to the camp, an estimated 17,000 in all, including men, women, children and infants.

Bullets were both valuable and scarce; they could not be wasted. So victims were clubbed to death, beaten with wooden mallets, axes and hoes. Some bled to death, their necks cut with the sharp leaves from local palm trees. Executioners took children by the feet and smashed their heads against the trunk of a large tree.

Bodies were then buried in mass graves, some 400 or more in a grave. To ensure certain death the bodies were covered with chemicals, including DDT.

At the end of the Pol Pot era, after Vietnamese soldiers entered Cambodia and overthrew his regime, the gruesome search for survivors and victims began. That’s when Choeung Ek was discovered.

The remains thousands of victims, most who died with hands bound behind their backs and blindfolded, were exhumed. Slowly the unimaginable scale of the atrocity grew and the camp took on the name of “the Killing Fields.”  It became a metaphor for the entire Pol Pot era.

I visited Choeung Ek yesterday. It is a memorial site to human atrocity. Eighty-six gravesites are visible, stretching out over the landscape. Visitors are asked to watch a 15-minute documentary before visiting the graves.

The tree, against which uncounted children’s lives ended, is a particularly chilling site. Memorial cloth bracelets now adorn the tree and rest at its foot.

In the center of the field sits a 17-story glass stupa, which is said to house 8,000 skulls exhumed from the graves. Many are visible through the windows.

Our small group was one among several at the time wandering through the fields. It was an eerily silent experience. The magnitude of what we were encountering was overwhelming; words were simply inadequate and almost inappropriate.

At the ghostly tree, burdened by unconscionable acts of brutality and inhumanity, we stopped to say a few short prayers.

What possible thinking, what ideology, could lead to such genocide, I asked our guide. He explained that once the killing began it was deemed necessary to avoid retribution. Kill or be killed. That’s how some executioners explained their actions after the Pol Pot regime ended and trials began, trials that languished for political reasons as China thwarted UN efforts to form war crime courts.

Pol Pot died in the Cambodian jungle. Few of his henchmen ever were held responsible. Some died in hiding. A handful faced trails and only a few of these faced prison sentences. Even today, with the old regime leaders, in the seventies and eighties, court actions continue to go on. Justice will never be served.

The Killing Field experience was both overwhelming and sobering. It forces one to face the fact that human beings are capable of such atrocities, of such madness.

This realization is made all the worse when one considers such ideological insanity, leading of mass murder and mayhem, continues to this very day, much of it in Iraq and Syria.

Fox is NCR publisher and can be found on Twitter @NCRTomFox.

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