The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

29 Nov

"Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake." Pol Pot

A few days ago, we visited the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The site was one of many throughout the country where millions of people were brutally executed by the Khmer Rouge during the years 1976-1979 when Pol Pot was in power.

The Khmer Rouge had a vision of everyone living in the countryside, working on the land, farming and doing other physically demanding jobs. Those opposed to this were killed, including teachers, doctors, children, and even members of Pol Pots own family.

When we arrived at the Killing Fields, I was surprised by how calm and peaceful the place was; birds were singing; there was a gentle breeze in the air and leaves rustled in the trees dotted about on the dappled sunlit lawns. Until I turned my audio guide on, it would have been difficult at first glance to imagine the horror that took place just over 3 decades ago.

As I walked slowly around the grounds, listening intently to information, case studies and music, my attention was directed to physical reminders of the Khmer Rouge’s sickening regime, including bones, teeth and clothes worn by those who were killed. Even today, remnants from the past still find their way unsettlingly to the surface of the pits where thousands of bodies were once thrown into.

30 minutes into the tour, I stood next to a tree which was used as a base to smash babies and children’s heads, and the razor sharp edges of thick palm leaves were used to cut throats. Quite often whole families would be wiped out as the Khmer Rouge grew increasingly paranoid. Towards the end of the tour I listened to the music that was used to hide the screams of those being killed. It brought tears to my eyes as I tried to imagine the fear people must have felt.

Afterwards, whilst looking around the on-site Museum I discovered that Pol Pot was once a geography teacher and many other members of the Khmer Rouge were also once teachers or lecturers. I wondered when the opinions of these individuals started to change and I left wanting to know exactly what influenced the Khmer Rouge to form their extreme vision for Cambodia, why they believed it to be the way forward and how such a minority managed to inflict such suffering on their own people.

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5 Responses to “The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia”

  1. curiouscatontherun November 29, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    I visited the Killing Fields two years ago, and I found the place very disconcerting – like you say, it feels so peaceful. It wasn’t until I was walking through some trees and could see pieces of clothing being gradually uncovered by people walking over some of the unmarked and unexcavated mass graves that it really hit me what had happened there. That and the matter-of-fact signs pointing out the tree for killing children, and the supply shed where the chemicals were kept and so forth. It’s a bizarre and disturbing place.

  2. Joan Hudson December 3, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    This is a powerful description of peacefulness and bloodshed – the juxtaposition must have seemed strange. Leaves me feeling I’d like to find out more.

    • clarehudson December 4, 2011 at 11:36 am #

      Just bought the book, The Pol Pot Regime by Ben Kiernan. Don’t know if it’s any good yet but it’s supposed to go into more detail about why it happened and the psychology behind genocide.

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