**Warning: This post contains graphic content related to the Khmer Rouge Genocide in Cambodia. Please read at your own discretion.**
In the 1970s, Cambodia suffered a massive genocide at the hands of the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge Combatants. Estimates are widely varied as to the number killed, but two recent studies conducted by different organizations both estimate that approximately 3 million people were brutally killed during the 3 year, 8 month, 20 day reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Our first stop was at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where 129 mass graves containing 8,895 victims were discovered after the fall of the regime. Its proximal location to the Tuoul Sleng Prison, where the victims were first brought for questioning, made it prime ground for the disposal of their victims. Men, women, children and babies were regularly brought over from the prison for “liquidation” at the hands of Khmer Rouge combatants. Literally, at their hands; victims were beaten with shovels, wheel axles, knives, and other readily available weapons. Using the very tools that were the peoples’ livelihoods, the combatants slaughtered their victims mercilessly. Age
and gender meant nothing; in fact, they had a particular method they used to kill the babies that involved holding them by their ankles and smashing them into a tree. They reasoned that it made more sense to obliterate the entire family and thereby eradicate any future threat of revenge or retaliation.
Of the 129 mass graves, 89 have been exhumed, and the remains of the victims have been treated and now lie in the memorial stupa. The stupa, a Buddhist memorial of the deceased, consists of 17 levels, each of which, starting on the second level, houses different types of bones. The very first level houses victims’ clothing. The next several are dedicated solely to skulls, all of which have been examined to determine approximate age and gender and are grouped as such within the levels. Higher levels house femurs, mandibles/jaws, and so on.
All around the stupa are the exhumed graves, separated by narrow strips of soil. Some of the more distinct graves are surrounded by fencing and covered by a thatched roof, with a sign indicating the nature of the remains found, including:
-burial site of 100 women and children, most of whom were naked -site of 166 headless victims
-largest grave of 450 victims
As you can imagine, the general feeling I had all morning walking around this tragic place was one of complete horror, my stomach clenched against the nausea. I kept comparing it to the day I spent at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, which was equally appalling, the hatred it embodied no more understandable.
This feeling continued as we ventured to Tuoul Sleng Prison, an old school that was converted for the use of the Khmer Rouge. The victims of the Khmer Rouge were brought first to this site for brutal interrogation and torture before being sent to their graves. Pictures of the victims, both their mug shots taken upon arrival and several pictures of the torture many of them endured, lined the walls of much of the compound. The bed frames the more politically powerful victims had been chained to remain, the bloodstains still etched into the floor. The twin bed-sized wooden stalls constructed for the less important victims remain in other areas of the compound.
The last building housed what might have been the most fascinating items on the compound: a collection of stories, both of the victims and of the combatants, compiled from living family members or the individuals themselves. The terror felt by both parties was clearly evidenced in the narratives. Many people joined the revolution because it was their only chance of survival, only realizing later what they would be forced to do to their friends, families, and community members. The victims families described their awful experiences when combatants came for their families or when they just went missing; only after years of absence did many finally concede that their loved ones must be in one of the hundreds of graves across the country.
Truly a sobering day.