Visit to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, the Killing Fields

by FieryTree on September 30, 2013 · 4 comments

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As with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I went ignorant of what the place might be. We’d been debating that morning if we even wanted to go. In my ignorance, a drive out to see a plot of land where people had been slaughtered didn’t sound like a good use of time. That the Remork (like a Tuk Tuk) driver had been waiting around for us all morning, through some miscommunication the night before, swayed us to go. I am so glad we did.

We haggled with the driver on price, he said $17, which seemed outrageous for a 15 kilometer trip. We haggled him down to $12 but tipped him up to $15 at the end, of the roundtrip journey. We found the price fair as the roads out there are in poor shape and completely congested with cars and a general muck in the air. Most drivers wear a mask for their nose and mouth but ours didn’t. I kept eyeing the masks on the side of the road wondering if I should get him to pull over and buy him one. For us, we wrapped our scarves around our faces to filter some of the grime we were breathing in.

After about 30 minutes, we arrived at a rather nondescript gate for the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Upon entering, there was a nicer ticket booth where we purchased our $6 tickets and received our complimentary audio tour, which was in a word, amazing.

There was chatter from a group that entered before us as we all put on our headphones but then it tapered off to just silence as we walked down the path. The grounds were overall quiet besides the sound of this gentle male voice through the headphones, explaining the facts of the tragedy that had happened to his country. The day was grey and the visitors moved slowly, eyes far away, listening. The man’s voice welcomed us to the Center and explained he had survived the Khmer Rouge regime but had been separated from his family for much of that time. He had found some of his family but 7 were still lost to them. He then gave some statistics:

  • 1 out of 4 were killed by their own people
  • 20,000 were murdered here
  • this is the most famous Killing Fields but there were 300 others. [And actually I get the number 300 from the brochure, my notes had written “3”, as if only it could have been so low.]
  • it took Pol Pot three days to empty the entire capital city and send them to “collection farms”.

The audio tour provided so much information I’d been missing from the Museum the day before. I took note after note on the Regime. I learned more of Pol Pot’s “vision” – to have a “pure” society of people who worked the land. He called the peasants the “base people” and said they were his heroes. The narrator reminded that they suffered too under the regime though. In total, 3 million people were killed.

The large stupa was actually the last stop and after the intro we walked to marker #2 that explained this was where the Truck stopped. The trucks came at night, filled with starved, blinded, terrified people, with their arms bound. They would be executed that night or in times where there were “too many”, the next day.  Initially they brought 50-70 people per day, from 1976-1978, but towards the end, up to 300 arrived daily. A new voice, that of a previous guard and executioner, explained the people had all been lied to, told they were just going to another facility, giving them the hope of freedom, so they would not make trouble during transit.

Stops #3 marked that detention center with a label “The Dark and Gloomy Detention”. The sign explained:

“The detention was constructed from wood with galvanized steel roof. Its wall was built with two layers of flat wood were to darken and also prevent prisoners from seeing each other.”

I will jump ahead and explain that on top of this terror of blindness, their ears were abused by the sound of revolutionary music (enabled by loud generators), whose goal was to mask the screams of those being executed. Further in the audio tour, at Stop #17 “The Magic Tree” the description was given “nightmare of sound” and an attempt to replicate what they heard was played: a loud generator mixed with a Khmer tune. It was a terrible combination and I stood in front of this otherwise nice looking tree considering how it was abused to be the provider of those speakers. At that point, a light rain had started again and I felt bad for the tree and whatever remaining darkness must be intertwined in its branches.

At the Stops #3 and #4, information on the tape gave more details about Pol Pot. He had brought educated people here, including monks and nuns; he called them the “new people” or “17th of April” people. Ironically, Pol Pot had too been a teacher but he condemned teachers to death. His regime was filled with young men from villages (farms) who he told the city dwellers were evil and cause of their problems. These villages and other peasants were his “year zero” people.

The people brought to be destroyed were all forced to sign confessions before their execution. Absolute records were kept on the detainees to confirm none escaped in transit, and a record was kept of each one killed. The Executioner’s office sign (Stop #4) explained it was equipped with electric power to enable “them to conduct executions and to read and sign the rosters that accompanied the victims to the site at the night time.”

Stop #5 was the Chinese Ceremonial Kiosk. This location had been chosen because it was already a graveyard, used by the Chinese. As we walked through the grounds, I’d see pottery shards that had not been identified on the tour. I asked an employee at the end about it and he confirmed it was from the land’s original use as a graveyard and didn’t acknowledge a connection with the Khmer Rouge’s use there.

At this stop, I finally realize why my backpack was covered in tiny black ants and dug out the unsealed bag of cashews that the ants had found (at the guesthouse) and were having a field day with. I knelt at the kiosk, pulling out the backpack pocket, brushing out the ants, feeling that my actions were too fast and too much commotion, even though I did this quite quietly. Everyone else’s movements were slow or they were sitting in contemplation, listening, my motions felt in stark contrast to theirs and I quickly returned to their speed.

I quietly moved on Stop #6 and the new horror of the “Chemical Substance Storage Room”. Substances like DDT had been used to kill those who had been buried alive and to cover the stench of the mass graves. They explained that the sharp edges of sugar cane had been used to slit throats since bullets were expensive. Stop #8, “Killing Tool Storage”, also explain that people had been beaten or hacked to death because it was cheap and accessible. Their slogan had been translated to “better to kill an innocent by mistake instead of missing an enemy by mistake”.

The mass graves stood testament to this. And so we came to Stop #7, “Mass Grave: 450 victims”.  A photo showed the skulls and large bones in rows, that had been removed from the grave. The audio explained that the site had been found with swelled mounds, some breaking open to reveal their horrors inside. Over this 6 acre location, 129 mass graves were found.

And so it was there, at that first mass grave, that I let the atrocities truly be considered. The grave was fenced off by bamboo sticks and on each of these were bracelets. At many of the temples in Siem Reap, I’d received a bracelet from a nun or religious person. Most came with a little prayer and tap on my wrist, each for good luck. I took off one from my favorite temple, Ta Phrom, and said my prayer over the bracelet. I thought to leave a bit of beauty from that wonderful temple or just anything of light. I considered again that the people killed here were “my people”. They were teachers and educated people, the class I would be in. They could easily have been my immediate and extended family if such atrocities had happened in the States and the thought brought tears to my eyes. I held the bracelet for a few more moments and then placed it on a post with the others. So many visitors had come and bore witness, had come and left a piece of themselves. However, I didn’t consider the other visitors then nor did I look to closely to see if the ground showed any other reminders of the people slaughtered there as the people around me seemed to be doing.

I moved on to #8 then #9, another mass grave, about 15 feet across. There they had also found foreign bodies including 6 Americans. A sign noted that bone and teeth fragments come up after a lot of rain. There seemed to be a few staring at the ground looking to confirm the sign and I stopped and looked for a moment too, as if part of some grotesque game of “I Spy” before continuing on to #10, passing additional depressions in the ground where there had been mass graves.

Stop #10 was the Longan Orchard. These are sweet sectioned, white fruits that grow in bunches. The brochure said it was where people had been worked to death by Angkar. Pol Pot had desired rice production to be tripled ( a completely unrealistic goal). His desire was a self sufficient society, so he forced people to work morning to night. However, the people in the city had been brought to work the land and knew nothing of farming nor were they given instruction. 100,000 died of starvation or disease. Imagine your life now and having everything known to you removed; imagine being dropped on a field to work sun up to sun down. I can think of maybe five friends who might have a clue regarding farming, I would certainly have no idea unless it was picking blueberries (which I read was considered a “private enterprise” and punished by death.) It was outrageous to think he thought this plan could work based on his say so alone!

We came up for air from these thoughts to buy water through a hole in the gate from these two younger girls with smiling faces. The transaction didn’t go smoothly as I tried to rummage through my bag for smaller currency, as they didn’t have change for my $5. It seemed in stark contrast to the grounds, these girls living life, smiling, having transactions on this edge of the fields used for such destruction. It was a needed breather. An older woman sat behind them, watching our transaction.

We divided the water into our water bottles, spilling a little water onto the dry path and it bothered me although I can’t put the proper thought into words. My bottle had fallen over too and James brushed it off. I didn’t want to take home the dirt from their home, didn’t want to use my clothes to dust it off and so appreciated his being willing to.

We drank long pulls of water, and continued to Stop #11 which was a path next to a lake. They explained on the other side of the dike, 40 graves remained undisturbed. At times they were covered with water. The choice had been made to not unearth them though. With the walk, a piece of music could be played “A Memory from Darkness” by Him Sophy composed about the genocide. It seemed with the first notes, a light rain started and continued as the music played.

Stop #12 welcomed the visitor to sit or walk around the lake while listening to testimonials of survivors. I opted to sit sheltered from the rain by my umbrella. I looked out over the dike to the peaceful water, there was a boat still on the water, only disturbed by tiny drops of rain. To my right was a mother hen and her babies, at times running past as I focused on the stories of the survivors.

It said the testimonials had been read aloud after a Buddhist ceremony and the monks had blessed them. They read them to try and gain a bit of peace. The stories captured some of the terrors of the regime:

  • The woman whose infant died because she only had time to breastfeed at night, for she had to work all day in the fields. She spoke of her grief and loss that remained with her to this day.
  • The man who saw a woman murdered because she was accused of stealing food, when the woman said another guard had given it to her.
  • The woman who had been raped by multiple men and the shame and sadness she felt over it, each day.

The last five were about the founder of the Genocide Center, his story of being forced to leave home at 13, of seeing his cousin murdered before him, who’d been labeled as a traitor to the Khmer Rouge. He spoke of his anger and isolation but also the hope his mother had instilled in him. Her love for him was so strong and her conviction in a dream she had of him having a good life. He said that the Khmer Rouge didn’t need to kill people because the people would have died of loneliness and lack of hope, but his mother’s dream, his goal of speaking English, and going back to school kept him going.

A particular story and his sadness over the man who bargained his life for him, struck another nerve with me. He retold how he’d stolen food and had been taken to prison. Each day they had to come up with a story and ask for forgiveness. Once they had no more stories left to tell, they were killed. An older gentleman daily begged for the his release, saying he was just a boy. He believed this lead to the older man’s execution and felt such sadness to not know his name to be able to thank his family for the sacrifice the man had made for him.

The killing he saw made him want to survive to so that the could come back and arrest them. He eventually escaped to Thailand then the United States and lived in Texas, where he worked for the UN. He returned and wanted to make his mom happy but said all she’d wanted for him was to have a good life, to be safe and happy. She’d actually forgiven the Khmer Rouge but he still feels emotionally broken even in his good life and said this is why genocide needs to be stopped.

We returned to the main path and next marker, moving quietly.

Stop #13 “Mass Grave: 166 Victims without Heads”, the audio noted that the clothing on the victims was the uniform of the Khmer soldiers. They had been decapitated as traitors. Another slogan shared: “Vietnamese head, Cambodian body”.

Stop #14 displayed a cabinet with the clothing of the victims. They stated early on the victims would be blindfolded and their clothes removed but towards the end there was “no time” and they were buried with their clothes. An additional track told of Pol Pot and how he had been able to lead for another 20 years after the Vietnamese armed forces recaptured the city. After that, Pol Pot lived under house arrest until 82, the audio tape noting he lived long after many of his millions of victims.

Stop #15 “The Killing Tree”. This was probably the worst (if possible to prioritize all the atrocities) because it was a mass grave filled with more than 100 women and children. The women, stripped of clothes, some raped (they said), and babies who had been murdered by having their head bashed against the so named tree. Initially the killing fields had been discovered by a man. He came upon the tree and saw blood and flesh on the tree and was terrified. They dug around the tree and found this mass grave and those horrors. I’d walked up listening to this story and saw a tree that seemed insignificant given all the horrors it had inflicted, then circled the mass grave site to see the tree covered in bracelets and labeled the ‘The Killing Field’. Somehow it made more sense to me, that it would be properly recognized, perhaps held accountable. I had stood before the mass grave and added my other bracelet from Ta Prohm, praying again, thinking of the children and mothers lost to these killings. I didn’t want to touch The Killing Tree though and add a bracelet there.

I listened about “Duch”, Kaing Guek Eav, Chief of the Prison and head of torture who reportedly had been brought back to The Killing Tree and wept. A recording of him said he prayed for the souls of the dead and he took responsibility for his men. Another display said that he was the only one to stand trial and the only one to express remorse. I wrote down this quote from him:

“I would like to emphasize that I am responsible for the crimes committed at S21, especially the torture and execution of people there. May I be permitted to apologize to the survivors of the regime and also the loved ones of those who died brutally during that time.”

It made me hopeful that he actually felt remorse, that he could recognize the destruction he caused. He had only been rediscovered in 1999 by a reporter though, having returned to teaching. At his trial, he plead for freedom but is now serving life in prison, his sentence changed from 30 years to life.

Stop #16 held a glass box of bones, with some piled on top, again we were reminded how fragments keep coming up after the rain. Next to it stood a “Spirit House” in disrepair. They pre-date Buddhism and used for the spirits that have gone before and who have not found rest yet. It was a shell of a house now that some previous visitors had left bracelets on.

We passed “The Magic Tree” mentioned previously and walked for a few moments on the grounds down a path. I don’t recall why we had gone in that direction but it was there that I did see bones poking through the ground and there I couldn’t ignore the shreds of fabric that were coming out of the earth. I couldn’t ignore the fabric but I also wasn’t willing to acknowledge that it was bone that I was seeing. James had to tell me and still I didn’t want to believe. We were walking between mass graves. I do recall the beautiful butterflies that stopped on the greenery, perhaps they had been what had lead us down the path.

With the bones, I was again reaching my fill of all that I could take in and we went to complete the tape with the information on the Memorial Stupa (Stop #18). It explained that some of the killing fields had been lost to the jungle or closed off due to land mines. The Stupa held over 10 levels of skulls and large bones, pointing out the skulls showed how some had been killed by large cuts by a machete or hole from a hammer.

It explained the Stupa was a mix of Buddhism and Hindu. It is decorated with the garuda (birds) on top and naga serpents (father of the Khmer people). Traditionally these two are enemies but when displayed together they are a symbol of peace.

James had disappeared at some point so I went to the Stupa alone and purchased flowers and incense to lay before the stupa. I said a prayer and set some of the incense into its holder, James had appeared and did the same. We entered the Stupa together and I took in the levels of bone.

The way the skulls were placed made me think of them screaming out, which would seem appropriate but was also a terrible though. The grounds had been peaceful, I truly hope that the spirits of those murdered there are not stuck here and have continued onto a better place.

Looking up, there were row after row of skulls.

We made our way out and the last stop of the museum, learning additional details and saw additional skulls that were on display to show the result of how each instrument, used to kill the victim, would look. Unlike the previous Museum, I documented each of these atrocities having the thought that I didn’t want to have to return. At that point, I couldn’t stand to read another detail. I snapped pictures of walls of information but couldn’t bring myself to read more.

I found James (who’d found the world’s dirtiest dog) and we skipped the shop on the way out and went back to the noisy city, dense air, and still grey sky. We looked over the green of rice and the sky heavy with clouds and thought of the life all teeming around us.

I’ve since read more and keep filling in other bits of information still unclear to me, developing a more full picture of the events leading up to their reign. I don’t believe that I’ve seen all of the significance that this trip will have in my life but I imagine it will show itself in time. The Center and the Museum are definitely important places to have traveled to.

What did you take away from this?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Renee October 22, 2013 at 8:50 am

What a sobering experience. I can understand and appreciate how difficult it was to go there and process all that happened. Thank you for sharing what you learned here. Hugs.

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2 FieryTree October 24, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Thank you Renee! They did a beautiful job of honoring those who had lost their life there.

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3 Kerrie June 26, 2014 at 6:08 pm

A really interesting read. That must have been a heart-wrenching and very moving experience. I still remember feeling close to tears when visiting a concentration camp in east Germany. The sad thing is that it still continues. The hatred people can feel for each other just because of their race is unimaginable. Ingo and I were going to visit Sri Lanka a while ago, but after watching a documentary about their Government’s recent atrocities we decided to boycott the idea. No way we are supporting them with our tourism!!

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4 FieryTree June 27, 2014 at 8:35 pm

It was definitely heart-wrenching and yet I’m glad for the experience, to be a witness, so it is hopefully never allowed to be repeated – if only, there. I can imagine that the concentration camp would also be very challenging but important to experience.
It’s interesting what you said about visiting Sri Lanka. I had a great aunt who wouldn’t visit Germany for most of her life because of those concentration camps too. I wonder about the citizens left to rebuild after such atrocities, how to assist them without sending any kind of message that what happened there was OK.

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