I have recently been on holiday in Cambodia and Vietnam. Two countries whose recent history has been a little troubled to say the least. When I say recent history, I don’t mean that I read about it at school, I mean I saw some of this on the news (infer what you will into this regarding my age.)
So in short form this is what occurred:
- In 1975 a Maoist regime led by Pol Pot took over the country of Cambodia, intending to “convert” the country to a self sufficient state.
- This involved moving people out of the cities into the countryside, and torturing and murdering anyone (and anyone directly or indirectly related to anyone) who might think this might be a bad idea.
- Although the exact figures are difficult to ascertain, it would fair to say that somewhere between 1.5 million and 3 million people were killed in the four year period that Pol Pot’s regime was in power.
- In 1975 Cambodia had a population of 7 million, hopefully this fact will give a sense of scale as to what occurred.
Facts are what they are, but I think in this instance it is very easy to get overwhelmed by numbers if you are looking at this from a distance, as I was when I was a child.
The tourist experience of the Killing Fields is in fact just a field, snappily titled Cheoung Ek.
Make no mistake, this is not just any field. Not far from the centre of Phnom Penh, the field I visited was the final resting place of thousands who had previously been residing in the infamous Toul Sleng security prison (S21).
On arrival all seems peaceful, helped by Cambodia’s wild chickens clucking about the place without a care in the world. There are however, as you review the area, several deep hollows in the ground, mass graves, as the signs solemnly inform you.
Walking around, it is easy to see fragments of bones and teeth etc visible in the reddish dust underfoot. This is a deeply unsettling experience for myself and those around me. Many were moved to tears, myself included.
And then a tree, the Killing Tree, apparently where babies heads where smashed to silence their cries forever. Contrary to any Hollywood instilled drama, it just looks like any other tree that is growing in the area. Everything just looks so ordinary.
Finally the Stupa, which is a Buddhist word for kind resting place. In here the Stupa is an unforgettable monument to what has occurred in one Killing Field - the skulls and bones and other remnants that could be recovered. This is one Killing Field that has had the graves excavated. To date 369 similar sites have been unearthed, contributing the best part of 20,000 mass graves to the cause. I guess the final toll will never be truly told, but the scale of this tragedy is unimaginable.
We had a guide, who was somewhere between 35 and 40, a good Buddhist who had been affected by this personally as a child, but who had, as a child been one of the souls who escaped the Killing Tree but was definitely part of the terror.
The purpose of the museum, and also the Toul Sleng prison camp is not to attract tourists. It’s purpose, primarily is to inform the world of the horrors that occurred in a single man’s name.
This post is dedicated to that idea, in the hope that humanity can learn, not just about the numbers, because if you just listen on the news it could become meaningless, but about some people, real people.
This whole thing continues to concern me because it still happens, apparently Hitler and Pol Pot are not the end of this grisly story. Rwanda and the breakdown of Croatia and on and on and on.
The reason this is here is a reminder to my several readers is that this shit doesn’t appear to stop or go away.
This not meant in any way to freak out potential visitors to Cambodia; the people are beautiful, (and astonishingly well adjusted considering what they have been through) however it is worth doing this just to give a sense of reality to those of us who don't have he good fortune to to see this in person.
This is undoubtedly some small words in a big sea, but we should not forget and hopefully this little piece would make my guide happy.
You may like to read some more informed and less emotionally attached words on this subject; below are some good links.
And finally, comments and corrections are always welcome, my loyal reader.