Killing Fields in Cambodia

Killing Fields in Cambodia are fascinating and horrifying, a dark and gruesome reminder of one of the most chilling genocidal events to have happened in the world. Under the rule of Cambodian Maoist insurgent Pol Pot and his army, the Khmer Rouge, thousands of Cambodians were interrogated, simultaneously tortured, put to death and dumped into nearby fields aptly named the Killing Fields. Under his rule there were nearly 350 such fields, 168 prisons, and almost 20,000 mass graves.

Pol Pot was the country’s official leader from April 1975 to 1978. The country’s downward spiral under his leadership included malnutrition, almost non-existent medical care, forced labor, and executions to “cleanse” the population. This terrorizing treatment resulted in a loss of more than 20% of the roughly 7 million people. Of these many locations, the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh became most renowned.

Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng
Tuol Sleng

Created on orders by Pol Pot, Tuol Sleng was once an ordinary Phnom Penh high school called Tuol Svay Pray High School, named after the Cambodian king Sihanouk. It was redesigned as a detention center for interrogating, torturing, and killing Cambodians after confessions were received and recorded. The prisoners were what Pol Pot called the country’s intellects, people he beleived ultimately threatened the communist regime.

The prisoners, most horrifyingly so, were all ages, from babies taken with their families to the elderly. The Khmer Rouge famously took haunting portraits of the prisoners, many of which are on display today. The faces of the inmates reveal confusion, shock, horror, resignation, and defiance, images not easy to get out of one’s head. The prison was controlled by roughly 1700 workers, most who were boys and girls from small villages as young as ten years and ranging to about 20. They were trained as interrogators and guards. Today, the former detention center is called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21 (Security Office 21 as named by the Khmer Rouge).

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek
Choeung Ek

Once an orchard, Cheoung Ek Killing Fields was the final destination of the prisoners of S-21. They were taken to the fields where, if they weren't already dead, they were massacred and dumped into one of the more than 100 shallow graves within an area about the size of a soccer field. Most of the bodies had been hacked or battered to death with makeshift weapons including machetes, iron bars, and pickaxes as bullets were seen as too precious and expensive. Most shocking were the stories of how the heads of babies and children were bashed into trees to cause death before being dumped into graves.

Today, an onsite monument holds almost 8,000 skulls of the victims exhumed from the mass graves. Walking through the fields during tours, scattered fragments of bones and clothing from the inmates are still visible all around. 

Though a harrowing and astonishing experience, visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia presents raw imagery of what Cambodians were up against in the not-so-distant history and how these events have shaped the country and influenced the people and even their culture. The Phnom Penh Municipality announced in 2005 that they will be fully developing the site as a memorial and no one is permitted to disturb any of the remains located within the fields.

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