The Killing Field at Choeung Ek
They stare eerily at me, row upon row of sightless eyes set in sun bleached skulls resting on shelves in the Buddhist stupa that reaches over 35 feet to the sky. They are stacked upon each other in a graphic reminder of the horrors mankind can heap upon itself.
The genocide memorial at Choeung Ek, about half an hour from the chaotic streets of Phnom Penh which were once deserted under the authority of the emerging dictator Pol Pot, leaves nothing to the imagination as it recalls a period of Cambodian history in which nearly 20 percent of the country’s population was systematically murdered.
There are the skulls, bones and bloodstained clothing, all painful and explicit evidence of some of the 17,000 men, women and children who were murdered here. There are the open mass graves, where workers in the late 1980s exhumed nearly 9,000 bodies to bring rest and resolution to a period of Cambodia’s darkest hour, then abandoned the job as the enormity of the job overwhelmed the workers’ capacity to complete it.
In one grave were discovered 450 corpses, their skulls bashed by farm instruments, their clothing intact. In another hole, 160 headless corpses were found, all ironically clad in the khaki uniform of the notorious Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot’s creation. He had conscribed young boys to do his dirty work – most of his armed force were teenagers – and armed them with crude tools to kill their neighbors, countrymen and women, friends.
And then he apparently ordered the death for the executioners, or at least some of them.
The workers stopped digging at some point, lacking the proper training, tools and manpower to complete the task, according to our guide. These days the heavy rains of the monsoon season wash away the dirt, revealing bone fragments, teeth and skulls that lie on the ground as visitors stroll the paths where thousands of people once knelt to await their death.
During the exhumation workers at first stacked the remains in a tin-roofed wooden shack, achieving the Buddhist requirement of providing a respectful resting place for the dead. Years later they erected the acrylic and concrete stupa as a fitting and permanent memorial.
Choeung Ek is one of dozens of similar killing fields spread throughout the Cambodian countryside, but it’s the best known. The government encourages tourists to visit the site, presumably as a means of promoting understanding.
The memorial spares no details of the cruelty, from the crude leg irons on display to the graphic depiction of how the Khmer Rouge killed children. These impressions haunt me as a visitor yet remind me how incredibly important it is to delve into the specifics of precisely what went on here. Horrible as it is, I am grateful to have seen, heard and witnessed the site for myself. It helps me remember what evil can do, and what unchecked madmen can be capable of exacting.
It makes me want to understand the US’s position on the four-year period of extermination, during which Pol Pot and his hit men herded thousands of people into the dreaded Tuol Sleng Prison – a former high school – to be tortured into forced confessions, then forced into trucks and driven to the killing fields where they would be murdered. I think of the Nazi’s systematic elimination of the Jews during World War II, when the world was spared the enormity of Hitler’s murderous crusade until the war was over. I am reminded of the world’s collective shrug of the shoulders as thousands of Tutsi men, women and children were murdered by rampaging Hutu rebels.
“Never again” seems a mocking slogan in the face of these many thousands pleading skulls, all of whom exist today as proof that what happened at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor was allowed by the international community to be repeated at Choeung Ek and over 150 other killing field sites throughout Cambodia
As a species, it would appear we haven’t quite learned our lessons.
Choeung Ek gives me an understanding of this people, their country, and the enormous task of helping a third-world economy find its way. Cambodians’ grasp of the reality of the Pol Pot regime – finally toppled by Vietnam in 1979 – is coming full term as some of Pol Pot’s staff are finally facing trial for their actions. A special Cambodian tribunal in 2007 charged Nuon Chea – Pol Pot’s second-in-command – with war crimes and crimes against humanity, at least moving towards closure of the unspeakable acts that occurred here.
Our guide tells of us a boy of 17, forced into service to drive the truck full of starving, tortured prisoners from Phnom Penh to their slaughter in the fields outside of the city. “He was a boy, and he had no choice but to do as he was ordered,” the guide said. “But how can we forgive him? How can we forget that he took an envelope (with pay) when others knelt to be killed?”
These days, the boy is now a man living not far from the killing fields. He is a farmer, known to many but relatively successful in his efforts to remain out of the public eye. He lives within miles of the fields where, only 40 years ago, the stench of corpses rotting in the hot sun led Khmer Rouge soldiers to dust the graves with DDT to keep the locals from detecting the breadth of what was transpiring.
I have been to Babi Yar in Ukraine, where German soldiers marched 34,000 Jews from their homes in Kyiv to the outskirts and machine-gunned them to death on a sloping ravine. The sight of the menorah commemorating the slaughter moved me to tears when I saw it, as I imagined the horror of those who were forced to stand and wait their murderer’s bullet.
Choeung Ek is different but the same. It is brutal, barbaric, and unspeakably horrible. It is also an important aspect of this country’s past that, like most crucial historical events, helps explain today’s reality in a country that is desperately seeking to find its way.