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02 July 2013

A Place I Shall Never Forget

Whilst we were in Phnom Penh I visited one place that I know will stay with me forever.

Before visiting Cambodia I'd, of course, heard of the Khmer Rouge but my knowledge was, I'm ashamed to admit, very sparse.  I was also aware of the killing fields but I didn't really know where they were, how many there were or much about them.  When we were looking at places to visit in the Phnom Penh area we realised we could visit Choeung Ek one of over three hundred killing fields throughout Cambodia, which we decided was something that we simply had to do.

We hired a tuk tuk to take us there and bring us back to Phnom Penh.  If you are travelling from Phnom Penh this is the best way to get there and back as there is no public transport to the site, I recommend you agree a price with your driver and agree that he will wait for you outside the site to take you back.  As we travelled through the city and out into the countryside I began to think about just how recent this history was and how potentially the people I saw on my journey had or at least their family had been touched by events personally during that period.


Memorial Stupa

By way of just a little background the Khmer Rouge was an alternate name (and probably the better known name) given to the followers of the Communist party of Kampuchea in Cambodia.  It was formed in 1968 and was the ruling party in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, led by Pol Pot.  After gaining power the Khmer Rouge undertook a radical social reform process in Cambodia with the aim being to create an agrarian-based Communist society, basically to create a society which was non-urbanised.  The Khmer Rouge forced people from the cities and out into the country to work in agriculture regardless of whether they had any experience of this type of work.  They controlled many aspects of Cambodians lives and over the course of their time in rule killed over a million of their people (approximately 21% of the population) many of these were intellectuals, for example those who could speak a second language or had any form of education, city dwellers and minority people.

Many of those killed were firstly taken to what were known as the killing fields.  Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh is the most well known of these killing fields.  In order to save ammunition the victims were often killed by poisoning or with spades, children and babies were killed by having their heads bashed against tree trunks.  After being executed the men, women and children were buried in mass graves at these sites.  

When we arrived we were given an audio guide to listen to as we walked around the site.  I thought this was incredibly well done, very informative and really helped me to understand a little of what had happened there.  Though I'm not sure I could ever fully appreciate the horror of it.  Having your own audio guide meant you could take your time and reflect on what you were hearing, it also preserved the peace of the site with everyone walking around in virtual silence.  The guide began with a brief history of the Khmer Rouge and we subsequently stopped at the sites of all the buildings that once stood there and heard more about what happened there.  There are not any buildings here left from this time as many of the buildings were, understandably, destroyed.  Before the site was used for these horrific crimes it had previously been used by the Chinese as a burial site.  There were still remains of some of the Chinese graves on the site and the familiar semi circular shape of them reminded me of those I've seen in Singapore.  How different those burials were to the ones that followed them.

Listening to the descriptions of what happened in each of these places was harrowing but the audio also gave you the opportunity to hear accounts from those who had survived the killing fields.  One story that particularly touched me was that of a mother whose baby son died because she did not have the food to feed him.  Had he survived him and I would have been similar ages which really made me stop and think.  

What I had not appreciated before visiting was that bone and clothing fragments are still surfacing, especially after there has been heavy rain.  Many of the mass graves have not been excavated and the bodies were buried in very shallow ground at the time of their execution.  There are numerous signs around asking you not to stray from the marked paths in case you disturb fragments that have come to the surface.  The tour showed us some of these bone and clothing fragments which have surfaced since and been collected and preserved as a memorial by the team who so respectfully care for this site.  To see these bones and the clothing still in tact and in a style that could so easily be worn by someone today was quite simply, heartbreaking.

A seemingly beautiful, peaceful place now but one which witnessed terrible horrors

The final part of the tour brings visitors to the Memorial Stupa (pictured above) which you can enter.  As we approached it from the other side to the angle my photo is taken at the skulls of victims could clearly be seen through the glass.  There are more than five thousand skulls of victims killed at Choeung Ek in the stupa.  By this point, as my tears fell, both my husband and I decided we couldn't go in there, maybe if I returned I would but my thoughts, what I had heard on the audio and what I could see from outside was enough.

As we travelled back to Phnom Penh my husband and I were completely absorbed in our thoughts about what we had heard and seen.  We barely spoke to each other the whole journey.  I'm not ashamed to admit that as I thought about what I'd heard on the way back those tears I'd shed welled up again, even writing this now I can feel my eyes stinging just a little.  My experience made me marvel all the more at what lovely people all the Cambodians we'd met at that stage and afterwards were, given what had happened in their recent history this made me appreciate that warmth all the more.  I was also suddenly struck by how few older Cambodians I'd actually seen and the reality of just how many had been wiped out by this regime.  

I'm glad I went, I learnt so much more that day than I knew before and yet I know what I heard was only a small part of what happened during those terrible years.  I'd urge anyone visiting Cambodia and reading this to visit the sites and museums for yourself if you can.


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There is, of course, lots of information available about the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields and the trials of those accused of various crimes if you are interested in reading more.  The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center recommends the following websites:

Khmer Rouge Tribunal  www.eccc.gov.kh/en;
Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program  www.yale.edu/cgp;
Cambodia Tribunal Monitor  www.cambodiatribunal.org

2 comments:

  1. I so agree, totally harrowing and horrifying. When we were in Siem Reap, we went to a landmine museum. Hard to believe still over 3 million un-exploded landmines in Cambodia! As you say, this all happened not so long ago, so hard to contemplate. Thanks for sharing.

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    Replies
    1. It's horrific to think about - thank you for reading the post.

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