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Andy’s Travel Diary

Friday, 26 Jan 2007

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia


It is impossible to visit Cambodia and begin to understand or get a feel for the country, its history, present, and people without visiting the most infamous site of the Cambodian genocide. So, from the high of the night before, partying in Heart of Darkness, to the depressing low of the Killing Fields. Phnom Penh charms and chills in (un)equal measure.

We hired a taxi to take us through the traffic-clogged streets of the city and out into the countryside along a dusty dirt track. We arrived 17km later with those who had sat in the boot (door wide open) covered in a layer of orange dirt. We paid a small entry fee to the site which was once a former orchard.

Choueng Ek is a picturesque and tranquil area of fields, lakes and trees that belies its tragic past as a burial ground for those murdered during the long nightmare of the Khmer Rouge.

Enemies of the regime were arrested, tortured and then shipped out of the capital at night by truck, many still blindfolded and told not to be scared, they were going to a new home.

The site holds 129 mass graves where an estimated 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the Khmer Rouge on pretexts such as resistance to the regime, counter revolutionary tendencies or religious belief. If you were from the 'wrong' background such as a wealthy family, you were at risk. If you had the 'wrong job', such as an engineer or a doctor, you were at risk. If you wore spectacles (a clear sign of intellectualism according to the Khmer Rouge) you were at risk. If you knew how to read or open a car door, if you had a white mark on your wrist suggesting you had worn a watch, if your hands did not display signs of manual labour, you were at risk. Anything that suggested you belonged to the middle, upper or professional classes, lived in a town or city, or were tainted by westernisation threatened to attract the party's unwanted attention.

The Khmer Rouge's extremist ideology conceptualised the old regime as a rotten, corrupt and dictatorial relic, the vestiges of which were to be violently destroyed marking a clear break with the past. This was Year Zero, the start of a new society, a communist, egalitarian utopia baptised with the blood of millions.

Choueng Ek was a fundamental tool to bring about this form of destructive creation.

Dominating the site and rising amid the sunken graves is a tall, white-marble Buddhist stupa, memorialising the victims of this facility in a stark and direct way. Abandoning an abstract focus for memory, used for example in the Holocaust memorial in Amsterdam, the designers of the stupa put on graphic display the terrible harvest of the Killing Fields; the skulls of nearly 9000 victims found during excavation of 86 graves. Tier upon tier of eyeless skulls stare out from behind the clear glass sides of the stupa. It was an immensely disturbing and powerful image.

A small door is left ajar to allow people to enter the stupa. I went in and saw the skulls arranged according to sex and age; Male Kampuchean from 20 to 25 years old. Female Kampuchean from 15 to 20 years old. These identifications made the memorial even more poignant and personalised the bleached skulls in front of me - What was this women like? How did this man live?

At close quarters i noticed most of the skulls had large cracks or holes, awful marks of the brutality characteristic of the regime. "Bullets are not to be wasted" ordered an extermination directive. Victims were therefore bludgeoned to death with steel rods, branches or sometimes the bones and skulls of those already killed.

I lit some incense sticks and placed them in a small vase in front of the stupa to help the spirits of the deceased a more peaceful passage to the afterlife.

Wandering around the back of the stupa i was confronted with the pockmarked, scarred landscape of open pits signposted with grim detail: "Mass grave with 116 headless bodies", "Mass grave with over 100 naked women and children's bodies" and so on and so forth.

Nearby stood a large tree where babies and children of the victims were held by their feet and their heads smashed against the trunk before being disarded in one of the pits. Another, called the Magic Tree was hung with a loudpeaker to stifle the moans of the victims.

A traveller i met earlier in my trip told me to look closely at the ground underfoot. Careful scrutiny was not necessary - tattered scraps of clothing and shards of bone poked out of the dirt paths.

It was all very distressing and we met up at the entrance in silence.

The Khmer regime was responsible for nealy 3 million deaths, a quarter of the country's population. 3 out of every 7 were killed during the reign of this hyper-communist party. It was not lost on me that there were seven in our group.

Choueng Ek is merely the most infamous of a vast network of torture, interrogation and extermination facilities scattered all over this small country; sites that scar the landscape with their testimony to the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. Suffering was not confined to these fields of death however. Tales are endless and some of the worst come from the forced depopulation of the towns at the beginning of the regime. Made to walk for days with no food or water, children began to starve, the old and ill died, and pregnant women gave birth on the roadside in the blazing sun. Even those wounded and in need of operations were ordered to leave the hospitals with their wounds still open.

Originally we planned to finish the day at S-21, a prison and torture facility in downtown Phnom Penh. The two sites had a symbiotic relationship and should be viewed as a whole. The day had been too emotinally draining however, so we postponed S-21 for another day.


Film - 'The Killing Fields'. I highly recommend this movie if you want to learn more about this tragic chapter in history.