Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields At Phnom Penh
Posted by TravellingStrom on February 7, 2013
On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell under the control of the Khmer Rouge, the communist guerilla group led by Pol Pot. They forced all city residents into the countryside and to labor camps. During the three years, eight months, and 20 days of Pol Pot’s rule, Cambodia faced its darkest days, an estimated 2 million Cambodians or 30% of the country’s population died by starvation, torture or execution. Almost every Cambodian family has lost at least one relative during this most gruesome holocaust.
In 1975 I was in grade 8, so while all the above was happening I was getting an education, oblivious like most of the rest of the world. But the events that happened here in Phnom Penh never really made sense to me even when I heard about it, as I was not a follower of current events. I did hear about them 3rd hand many years later when I started work, as one of the employees was a Vietnamese refugee who had fled with his family by boat, during that horrible war. Cambodia at the time was also getting its fair share of attention from the US bombs as they tried to stop the resupply via the Ho Chi Min trail. So by the time Pol Pot came to power the Cambodian people welcomed anybody who would fight against the US, in this case it was Pol Pots version of communism.
Today I had hired a TukTuk to transport me around, as I did not want to try and navigate through the nightmare traffic here in the capitol. His name is Mr.Sovanna and he is married to one of the Cafe staff here at the hotel, surprise surprise But, he spoke good English and had a clean and well looked after TukTuk and the price was right, $20 for the day and he gets to sit around for a lot of it and so do I
I queried him on the itinerary, whether to go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or the Choeung Ek Killing Fields first, he said it is best to go to the Killing Fields first as it is a fair way away, 15km. (With regards to the Blog, I will do a separate post on Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S21). So, we headed off at a reasonable hour of 0930 and I got to sit in the shade and nearly relax, but he was a good driver and after a short while I was very relaxed as he did all the hard yards And I am glad I chose to do it this way, it was stinking hot already and it would not get any better for a long time. There were quite a few traffic snarls to get through, forget traffic lights, they are useless, the police need to get off their arses and start controlling the traffic!!! Mind you, having buses and trucks parked up blocking a lane does not help. And all the gear that gets transported by bike is incredible, you saw the windscreen yesterday, today I saw a washing machine on one and two chaps with a ladder AND a split system aircon between them on another, no kidding! The weird thing about this though, I have not seen any ROAD RAGE, except from me, lol. I mean, all these people on the roads have grown up with the fact that, this is the way it is, they have never known any better, so people doing stupid things is the norm, I am not sure if what I learn here will go down to well with the fuzz back home!!
When the traffic ahead is too congested use the other oncoming lane, crikey.
Major intersection chaos!!!
The weird thing is, even though these bikes and cars are on the wrong side and coming at you, like the last photo above, they seem to expect it and avoid each other. Getting T-boned by someone from the side is a different kettle of fish. We arrived at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre GPS – N11.48424 E104.90121 about 40 minutes later where I was dropped off and told to take my time. The fee is $5 and you get an Audio guide as part of the price, they have many language choices. As you can see from the map, it is a fair way away from the main city
The tour started where the trucks unloaded prisoners to be executed. There were a couple of audio files played here, covering the background details and one was the voice of one of the Khmer Rouge guards Him Huy, who was also one of the executioners. This whole compound was surrounded by rice fields and orchards, so they had a big fence on three sides and the wall of a dyke on the 4th, to stop flooding during the wet. Nobody working on the farms knew what went on here, they assumed it was a military base of some sort.
A short distance away was the dark and gloomy prison site. A quick note, there are no buildings left, when Cambodia was liberated in 1979, the people used the materials from here for other purposes. The next few locations are self explanatory, although as before, the audio files expanded on the basic information.
We then moved onto one of the mass burial sites, this one had 450 victims in it. Most of these pits were dug about 5m deep prior to the killings and of course different outside dimensions overall.
As you can see it was not that large an area, maybe 5x10m. The killers used whatever they had available to do the executions, bullets were too expensive, so brute force and basic tools were the method used!
This is an excerpt from a web site on the killing field, which is pretty grim. They documented everything, to make sure nobody escaped. The people they killed were not enemies of war, they were their own people, Cambodians
The majority of the victims were trucked out to Choeung Ek, at about 8 or 9 o’clock PM, to be killed. The guards took the prisoners from their cells to the main gate where a large truck waited and told them that they were being transferred to another place. This lie was created to prevent the prisoners from crying, refusing to go or from escaping. In order to be well prepared for execution, a messenger from the defense unit was sent to the Choeung Ek Killing Field in advance to inform a permanent team about the number of the prisoners to be killed that day. Usually, the messenger went to the Killing Field by motorcycle in the mornings. To ensure that a top secret was kept and also that the execution was carried out properly, Duch, Peng, and Huy were requested to attend by Son Sen, the Minister in charge of defense and security. Often times, Duch sat smoking on a mat near the pit to supervise the executions and to insure their murderous plans.
Prisoners were led in small groups to ditches and pits that were dug in advance by another team stationed permanently at the site.
They were told to kneel down and then they were clubbed on the neck with tools such as cart axle, hoe, stick, wooden club or whatever else served as a weapon of death. They were sometimes stabbed with knives or swords to save using bullets, which were deemed to be too expensive. Duch said: “We had instructions from the party on how to kill them, but we didn’t use bullets and usually, we slit their throats. We killed them like chickens”
Him Huy, who took the prisoners to be killed at Choeung Ek recalled,”They were ordered to kneel down at the edge of the hole. Their hands were tied behind them. They were beaten on the neck with an iron ox-cart axle, sometimes with one blow, sometimes with two…
The audio guide provided some extra information, they tell you to look at the sugar palm that is growing there, then look closely at the edges of the leaves, they have a lot of sharp teeth and the guards sometimes used these to cut the victims throat so they would not cry out.
The actual site itself used to be a graveyard for the Chinese, prior to it being used for this purpose. There are still the occasional grave markers in place, these are bits of concrete sticking out of the ground and marked by a blue sign. In the next few photos, every single one of those holes that look like bomb craters was a mass burial site. Even though they have been cleared and checked, every wet season, teeth and clothing can appear on the surface, these are collected up and saved.
We next went towards the dam area where was an orchard, the people who brought here were worked to death. They were made to work long hours, with little food and mostly no knowledge of farming either. These were the people who used to live in the city and were forcibly removed to the country, teachers, doctors shop owners, normal city people. As we walk along the dyke area, we get to listen to quite a few first hand stories from victims of this period. Included were a mother who lost her baby, because she worked so hard and had so little food, she could not produce milk, the baby died. A young girl who was caught by some Khmer Rouge soldiers and repeatedly raped, she has never been able to live in the town she was born in because of the shame, the people believe it is her fault There were more of this nature.
Where the water is there are a number of undisturbed grave sites and they are to be left that way at this stage. One of the next sites were the remains of Khmer soldiers, believed to have been traitors their heads were removed and not found.
After the graves had been exhumed, during the wet as mentioned before, scraps of bone, teeth and clothing float to the surface, they have places where these are kept.
The Killing Tree, unbelievable what they did here. Mothers and their babies were brought here, then the guards would grab the babies by the legs and smash their heads into the tree, while the mothers looked on. The mothers would be stripped, maybe raped and then killed before being thrown into this pit. There are still bits of clothing stuck in the roots of the tree
It is from here that you get a better idea of the number of grave sites within the area.
A glass box was holding some of the bone and teeth fragments at the next location.
The Magic Tree, this was a huge three that contained the loud speakers that were used to play at high volume, music and other items of interest. In combination with the noise of the generator, this was used to mask the screams of the dying from the surrounding farms.
The last place on the tour was the very large Stupa in the centre which can be seen from nearly everywhere, this is a memorial to those who died not just here, but in the over 300 killing fields in Cambodia. It holds the bones of over 10,000 victims, the skulls are arranged on the first 10 levels into groups, males females, young old etc etc. Above the skulls are housed the large limb bones, legs and arms while the uppermost levels contain the smaller bones, teeth etc.
That concluded the tour, and a very depressing tour, but very enlightening at the same time. Hearing about it or reading about it is not the same as being here at the location where it all happened. You would have to compare Pol Pot with Hitler, both Genocidal maniacs and both left much pain and death as a legacy. The worst part about PP though is he lived to a ripe old age and never suffered for his crimes. There is an ongoing trial against the other 3 leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary. It is called Case 002 with many references to it and a lot of information on the net. It seems to be a very slow process with already one person being let free as unfit to stand trial. Hopefully they will speed it up and deliver justice soon. Here are a couple of links for those interested:
So, it was now close to midday and I found my TukTuk driver who took me into town, on my way to see the prison called S21, or Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The grim story of that horrible place will be on a separate post.
Just so I end on a brighter note, not to detract from the history, here are a couple of photos, the first is a dog I saw on the dyke who had a strange way of sleeping, the second is my lunch, corn on the cob, I love it and you can buy it cooked from a road side vendor, 75c each, I bought one for Mr Savannah as well
Cheers from Phnom Penh