If you missed the first installment of this story, you can read that HERE.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
From Toul Sleng, these people were herded onto buses like cattle. Before the buses revved their engines and headed for, what would eventually be known as the Killing Fields, the people were told that everything was okay; they were just moving to a new ‘home.’ Maybe some of them believed that and hung onto it for the duration of the bus ride, but I don’t think many of them had many illusions left.
When they got to Choeung Ek, their lives were ended as quickly and efficiently as possible. The soldiers that brought them here had been ordered not to waste bullets, so they used whatever was at their disposal. And I want to draw particular emphasis to this: whatever was at their disposal. They also had little to no instruction on how to kill a human being. So it was fast and messy. People were killed with hammers, shovels, rocks, crowbars, small knives and even parts of plants. There is a certain kind of palm tree that grows here whose branches have saw-like ridges. I felt these edges – they are jagged and hard like metal. Throats were slit with these. When somebody’s throat is cut they do not die instantly, but in their last few moments they are unable to speak or make any sounds. So during their last seconds of life, these people fell silently and helplessly to a hard landing in a shallow grave on top of the piled, bloody, twitching bodies of the men, women and children that they had rode the bus with. Imagine having your throat slit with these:
Walking through the Killing Fields, you will come to a large tree with small Cambodian bracelets hanging from every available outcropping of bark. There were small children and infants killed here. The guards would grab these children by their feet and swing them into to the tree to bash their heads in. They would then be tossed into the grave like a rag doll to lay with their friends, parents, brothers and sisters.
Choeung Ek had previously been a small graveyard. The Khmer Rouge had set up a government encampment there so the neighbors would not go wandering in. On these nights of executions the guards would play traditional Cambodian music as might be played during a social gathering. This was to cover up the sounds of cries, screams and splatter. The executions were illuminated by high-power lights that had been hung from trees by their extension cords, powered by large generators. They must have cast some pretty disturbing shadows. The Killing Fields tour is done via audio book, and in this series of sound bites, there is a passage were they recreate these sounds. The creepy traditional Cambodian music overlaid with the roar of power generators were the sound track for these atrocities. It is probably the least comforting combination of sounds you can imagine. The music sounded something like this, and it was about 10x louder:
In the beginning, these executions happened a few times per week, but as things escalated, the executioners couldn’t keep up with the amount of people that were arriving in the buses. If they couldn’t kill all of them in a night they would leave them sitting, bound, in a small barn until the next night.
Who was killed and who wasn’t? The people marked for death were those that were educated or were otherwise suspected to be able to think for themselves. Anybody with a college degree (that’s me – I’m dead), anybody with a business job (that’s me – I’m dead again), even anybody with glasses (that’s definitely me – dead). These people stood to question Pol Pot’s vision for the new Cambodia. Pol Pot also decreed that the families of these people join them in death. This order came from a Pol Pot slogan that went something like this: "To kill a weed, you have to dig up the root." This is how the Khmer Rouge hoped to eliminate the possibility of anybody seeking revenge against them.
The End of the Genocide
By the time the Khmer Rouge was driven out, roughly 3.4 million people, or about 25% of Cambodia’s population, had been murdered. That is 1 in 4 people. It was not that long ago either. If you go to Cambodia, you will notice that there are almost no elderly people walking around. They all died early deaths. And most - actually scratch that - all adults alive in Cambodia today lost somebody in this genocide.
So what happened to finally put a stop to this? People had come from abroad to see what was happening but were not able to convince the rest of the world to believe them, much less take action. The world lived in ignorance of what was happening.
What finally drove the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia was an attack from the recently unified Vietnam. When I heard this I thought to myself "Aw yay! Vietnam is the hero of the story!" But truth be told, Vietnam couldn’t have known exactly what was happening inside Cambodia - nobody could. Even on the inside, most Cambodian people didn't know exactly what was happening until it was all over. When Vietnam attacked, it was in retaliation to aggression from the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot had, pretty randomly, ordered the invasion of Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island. This started a manly, macho pissing contest between the 2 governments... ultimately won by Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge fled to the dense jungle on the border between Cambodia and Thailand and Vietnam accidentally ended the genocide.
Pol Pot had completely dismantled Cambodian society, which left almost nothing for the survivors of the Khmer Rouge. With the Khmer Rouge gone, Cambodia lay in ruin. People took to the streets in search of food. It wasn’t long before somebody wandered into Choeung Ek looking for food and discovered the Killing Fields. The shallow mass graves had grown to be swollen mounds of dirt as decomposing dead bodies released all their nasty gases. The place is said to have had a powerful and disturbing stench when it was first discovered: the musk of death.
Today teeth, bones and pieces of clothing are still surfacing at the Killing Fields. The staff that work at the Killing Fields sweep the grounds to collect bones monthly. There is a giant tower, built in the Buddhist architectural tradition, that houses thousands of skulls and other bones that were pulled from the ground. The thing is though that less than half the mass graves at Choeung Ek have been excavated, so all the 9,000ish skulls in this tower are just a fraction of the men, women and children that died here. Most of them still lay undisturbed. In this tower there are diagrams explaining how to identify the weapon that had been used to kill the (former) owners of the skulls. You can tell by looking at the shape of the hole in the skull or, in come cases, how many teeth are still left. There are mass graves exactly like this one all over Cambodia; we visited a smaller one in Siem Reap too. The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek however, are the largest and most well known.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge the Cambodian people were in dire need of help, but they didn’t get it. This was the during the Cold War, and Communist Vietnam's intervention was seen as having created a problem in Cambodia rather than having (accidentally) ended a genocide. The Khmer Rouge had been supported by most Western nations, including the U.S. In fact, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the international community refused to recognize the Cambodian people as a valid nation. For this reason, the Khmer Rouge held onto Cambodia's seat in the UN for the next 15 years. Like, just, WHAT?!? In accordance with this, all the aid money that came from around the world was sent to the internationally recognized Cambodian government: the Khmer Rouge. They used this money to finance their feeble attempts to regain control of Cambodia and continue their genocide. Thanks for lookin' out, UN.
Meanwhile, through the mid 1990s, the people of Cambodia starved as they struggled to reconstruct their society. A large number of people fled to Thailand but an estimated 650,000 died on the way due to starvation or stepping on landmines. Oh yeah – did I mention that the Khmer Rouge planted landmines all around the Cambodian border so that nobody could escape from their “agrarian utopia”? Well they did.
What became of Pol Pot?
I’m glad you asked. If you weren’t already getting angry, you might now. Pol Pot lived a long, restful life in the countryside with his family. In the few interviews there are with him, he showed no signs of remorse. He maintained that people were unfairly making him out to be the villain, as if it had all been a big misunderstanding.
Eventually, DECADES later, the world got around to dealing with this and Pol Pot was put under house arrest while the international community decided how to proceed. The Khmer Rouge agreed to turn Pol Pot over the U.S. so he could start to be formally tried for crimes against humanity. Pol Pot, who was an old man at this point, found out the night before he was to be handed over to U.S. and conveniently died within a few hours. Most people suspect suicide, but that was never confirmed because the Khmer Rouge refused to hand over his body for an autopsy. Instead they cremated him as fast as possible. His grave is small, shabby, overgrown and forgotten in the jungle near the Thai border.
They say that the death of one is a tragedy while the death of millions is just a statistic. I'm not sure if I did before, but I get it now. It’s pretty hard to process what happened at these places I’ve been writing about. It was obviously worse than any nightmare, but the horrors that happened here are just so far outside the average person’s threshold for evil that it is a pretty hard to fathom. It’s surreal that something like this could have even happened. How could people do these things? Walking through the Killing Fields, listening to first hand testimonies and seeing the human remains and the empty clothes of children, I didn't feel like I was really taking it all in. The death of one is a tragedy and the death of millions... is just incomprehensible.
Yeah, genocide is always bad, but Pol Pot's case is even less understandable than most instances of genocide over the course of history. Let's take Hitler for example. He was a savior to Germany - when he was in power the German economy was a powerhouse and he was a charismatic, inspiring leader. And he didn't get where he got over night - it took him years. And when he started killing people of other races, there was resistance from within, as well as from abroad. Pol Pot came into power over night, killed his own people, and nobody cared. I just don't get it, dude.
It’s true, Pol Pot basically got away with it. It’s true that he also claimed to have died with a clear conscience. But that doesn’t mean that everybody is a psychopath. There are other testimonies. The audio recording given to visitors to the Killing Fields include recordings of quite a few confessions and apologies from people within the Khmer Rouge. The one that stood out though is from a man named ‘Dutch’. He was the man who ran Tuol Sleng prison. Unlike Pol Pot, he understands. He understands what he did and his testimony is pretty terrible to hear. Living with that much blood on your hands must be terrible but hearing him speak is reassuring that people might not be so bad.
Overall it's absolutely worth a visit. I think that we, as members of the human race, have the responsibility to expose ourselves to things like this, because the fight is not over. Genocide has been, and continues to be a recurring phenomenon. And the rest of the world is establishing a track record of inaction - it's the bystander effect on an international scale. At the end of the audio book tour what happened at the Killing Fields is compared to, among other things, the genocides that happened Western nations such as Australia (against the Aborigines people) and the U.S. (against the Native Americans).
I'm sorry to say it, but they have a point. So tell me, my fellow Americans, if we're so conscientious, if we're such a leader in the human rights department, if we felt like we were so qualified to put Pol Pot on trial, where are our monuments and memorials? Where's our big apology? We've barely even acknowledged our own genocide.
Come on, man.
Of course, there's nothing we can do about any of this now, but what we can do is prevent it from happening again. Here's something I bet you didn't know about: right now Myanmar (aka Burma) is about half a step away from committing full-on genocide against its Muslim minority, the Rohingya people, or as they are now being called "the boat people." They are called this because thousands of them have fled Myanmar, and are now floating around the South Pacific and starving to death in rickety, overcrowded, fishing vessels, abandoned by their traffickers. Myanmar has stripped them of their citizenship and rounded them up into camps where the vague but frequent occurrence of "abuses" is the only information that has managed to escape to the international media. Now that the "boat people" have started to land on foreign shores it has become other people's problem and the world is finally starting to take notice. I plan on visiting Myanmar soon, so I'm sure I will elaborate on all this later. But in the mean time, you can (and should) read about it here:
( The New York Times )
( NPR )