March 10, 2013 by Deborah Cicurel
Having visited Auschwitz, Treblinka and several other concentration camps in Poland, as well as Zebilitovska Goura, a mass grave of 10,000 children, I thought I was tough enough to visit Choeung Ek, the most famous of 300 Cambodian Killing Fields. I experienced the same feelings of shock at the cruelty of humans and the scale of meaningless deaths, years after my first trip to the site of a huge genocide.
This is where, in the 1970s, the Cambodian Communist tyrant Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed up to 3 million of his own people under an attempt at an agrarian utopia which revered peasants and despised capitalists. His incomprehensible policies involved murdering men, women and children who were educated, spoke more than one language, wore glasses and had non-calloused hands.
Like so many other dictators, he recruited uneducated, impressionable young men to carry out his idea of social justice – beating innocent ‘enemies’ with hammers and other cheap weapons as bullets were considered too expensive.
When I visited the concentration camps in Poland, it was the middle of December, the snow was heavy and the atmosphere was oppressive. The horrors of seventy years ago were tangible and my trembling was not only for the cold.
But Choeung Ek was not at all like this, despite the fact these atrocities were even more recent. It seemed almost peaceful, with trees, birds and flowers in sight, and sunshine streaming onto the land. This ostensible tranquility was undoubtedly in part due to the fact that the former buildings of the Killing Field had been destroyed immediately after, removing a certain reality for visitors forty years later.
With a very informative audio guide, I wandered around the Killing Fields, stopping to look at the places where people were initially brought, to watch a short film on Pol Pot at the museum and to pay my respects at the mass graves of hundreds of children, where hundreds of visitors had left behind their woven bracelets as a sign of respect.
One of the most awful parts of visiting Choeung Ek is that these atrocities were so recent, which means two things. Firstly, it was still possible to see bits of bone surfacing from the ground – every three months the new bones and cloth that have surfaced are collected by special caretakers. Secondly, I realised that every Cambodian I met on the street must have been directly affected by this genocide. I wondered how so many meaningless deaths on such a large scale could keep occuring decade after decade. Will we never learn and will this keep occurring throughout our lifetime?
The centrepiece, if you can call it that, of Choeung Ek, is a tall stupa filled with many levels of human clothes, bones and 5,000 skulls, the skulls of just a tiny fraction of people who died there. It is hard to believe the hollowed out pieces of bone staring back at my widened eyes used to belong to very real people, battered to death mere metres away from where I was standing.
Finally, it was time for me to leave Choeung Ek, to go back into the usual chaos of Phnom Penh, the drivers constantly asking if I need a Tuk-Tuk, the pollution that meant I had a mask over my face for most of the journey, the ladies on the street offering me corn on the cob for a dollar. But it was not easy to forget the sights I had just seen, nor do I think it will ever be.
- Phnom Penh: exploring Cambodia’s turbulent past (mascarasandbackpacks.wordpress.com)
- The Killing Fields (shimango.wordpress.com)
- Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields At Phnom Penh (travellingstrom.com)
- Why You Should Visit The Killing Fields of Cambodia (markstraveljournal.me)
- The Hard Truth (curryforbreakfast.com)
- Phnom Penh – The shock of the Khmer Rouge hits home. (thptravels.wordpress.com)
- Cambodia holidays: Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh make for an exotic cocktail (dailymail.co.uk)
- My Friend, Arthur: Formerly the Planet’s Biggest Dope Trafficker (natethayer.wordpress.com)
- Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. (lunaticoutpost.com)
- Cambodia’s $11 Billion Mystery (lookingbeyondborders.com)