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Bloodshed and Butterflies at the Killing Fields

Face-to-Face with Cambodia's Gruesome History

overcast 25 °C

With the sun just starting to burn through the morning haze, it promised to be a beautiful day. All around us, birds sang sweetly while monarch-patterned butterflies flittered from wild flower to wild flower. Children teased each other, delighting in the coolness of the day, and betrayed only by the sounds of their young voices being carried in the wind from the school a few feet away.

Have the 20,000 souls found their peace, here at the most well known of Cambodia's Killing Fields?


Cambodians don't like to talk about the genocide that saw up to 25% of its population (about 2 million people) murdered between 1975 and 1979. For many, it's just too personal: it would be hard to find a family here that did not lose a loved one. For others, silence is the only appropriate response to events that defy logic, that can never be understood. The genocide is not discussed openly. But it is far from forgotten.

The Memorial Stupa at Choeng Ek. The covered structure on the left is a former burial pit.

At Choeng Ek, about ten miles south-west of Phnom Pehn, visitors walk around the sunken pits from which thousands of bodies have already been exhumed. But it's not all butterflies and wild flowers. At several times during our tour, and even though we were sticking strictly to the trail, we were horrified to realize that we were walking on some recently exposed human bones. The Cambodian guides - perhaps in the pursuit of an extra dollar of two - do seem to focus on the most gruesome details, and we have no doubt that some of the "clothing" emerging from the dirt was far more recent than 1979, but the bones were - regrettably - real and we think a raised walkway is the least these victims deserve.

The Memorial is simple and effective. Shown in the picture above, it is glass-sided, with shelves lining the entire interior, from floor to ceiling. Human skulls and bones are alternately neatly lined up or heaped on the shelves. There are more than 5,000 skulls here. Skulls that have been punctured, crushed, sliced. Gruesome - yes, but it couldn't be called gratutious. Literally eye-to-eye with death, this monument delivers its promise to never let Cambodians forget. Fear. Horror. Terror. Is it possible it was only thirty years ago?

Eye-to-eye with death. Enough said.

The fact that Choeng Ek is one of more than three hundred "Killing Fields" throughout Cambodia gives us an idea of the scale of the atrocities here. Pol Pot’s regime was nothing less than a terrifying social experiment to transform the population – almost overnight – into a pliant, agrarian workhorse. His soldiers included impressionable young children who could be transformed – with staggering ease as it turned out – into violent killing machines, sometimes tasked with the “official destruction” of even their own families.

In many cases, prolonged torture and interrogation preceded inevitable death. Security-Office 21, or S-21, was created to manage anti-Angkor elements and, while it was a highly secretive organization during the late seventies, it now evokes images of the most terrible war crimes for all Cambodians. At Choeng Ek, a Cambodian message humbly assesses that the Cambodian genocide was more terrible even than the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe during World War II.

An important S-21 facility was located right in the heart of Phnom Pehn, in a site formerly used as a school.

Tuol Sleng was a school before it was a detention centre.

Having been quickly abandoned as the Vietnamese approached Phnom Pehn in 1979, the complex was discovered by a photo-journalist who - literally - followed his nose. He photographed the hastily-killed victims still lying on metal bed-frames, and it is these harrowing images that are now used to remind visitors of the horrors executed here. The exhibition's simplicity is its strength; some rooms house only a single bed frame, and a single photograph of a violently mutilated victim.


Much is known about Tol Sleng's residents because documentation was meticulously maintained regarding the prisoners' backgrounds and their subsequent 'confessions' of crimes against the regime. In total, the centre is believed to have housed about 20,000 inmates over its four-or-so years in operation, the vast majority ultimately finding their deaths at Choeung Ek, the most famous of Cambodia's Killing Fields, located about 10 miles southwest of the city. Pol Pot's regime targeted the educated (doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers), the disabled, those who wore glasses, even those who spoke foreign languages. In short, only faithful farmers and labourers capable of 16 hour days were spared. With so many hours in the fields, these labourers should have been well rewarded for their work, but rice was being sent to China in exchange for military equipment, and many Cambodians starved to death during this period.

A monk contemplates Cambodia's violent past at Tuol Sleng.

Cambodia’s war criminals have still to be brought to justice. A Khmer Rouge tribunal has been underway for several years and – like most tribunals – will doubtless continue to be mired in complexity. It has just been announced, however, that the S-21 cases will be separated from the others to accelerate the trials of former S-21 Director Eav, known commonly as ‘Duch’ and other leading “Brothers”. The tribunal noted that this was possible only because of the “relative simplicity” of the case, which must point to the very detailed documentation of inmates at Tuol Seng.

Of note, and according to the Cambodia Daily, “only one person has so far come forward as a civil party to the tribunal proceedings”. This is in large part due to the fact that so few Tuol Seng residents – less than two handfuls – survived to tell the tale. Maybe it’s also partly due to Cambodians’ desire to put the past behind them. Or maybe it’s that they’re still afraid to talk.

Posted by jacquiedro 16:20 Archived in Cambodia Tagged round_the_world

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