The words would not come. Several times since our visit to the Cambodia Killing Fields and S 21 prison in Phnom Penh I begin to write of the experience. Each time emotionally overcome by the wretched horror of the Cambodia genocide I escape the memories and dash away from the computer.
Yet I feel strongly that our travel is to not only explain the beauty of waterfalls or the grandeur of ancient temples. It is vital to reveal what can happen when hate and prejudice flourish unchecked.
My promise to a tearful survivor of the Cambodian horror nags at my conscience.
The following article may leave you feeling disturbed. During our Killing Fields Cambodia tour I had to step away on several occasions, distressed by the shock and haunting descriptions. Feel free to step away as you need here as well. My hope is that you take away at least one fact about this recent history of abhorrent treatment of fellow humans and pass it on to someone else.
May kindness rain down on humanity.
Facts You May Not Know About The Cambodia Killing Fields
Who were the Khmer Rouge?
The name historically conjures up hideous images of death but who actually were the Khmer Rouge? The name was given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kumpuchea. Supported by the North Vietnamese army, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao, the group slowly grew in the jungles of eastern Cambodia in the late 1960’s. Winning Cambodia’s civil war the Khmer Rouge captured the Cambodia capital of Phnom Penh in 1975.
Why did the Khmer Rouge want to kill the people of Cambodia?
The Khmer Rouge stated they wished to create a perfect communist agricultural society. A ‘back to the land’ concept. In reality the policies of leader Pol Pot were radical adaptations of Marxist-Leninist theories. The actual goal was to produce a classless society of collective farms.
To procure their vision the Khmer Rouge emptied complete cities. Millions of evacuees were forced to walk at gunpoint into the countryside. With no provisions against the tropical heat and monsoon rains many succumbed to lack of food and water. Those who survived were forced to create new settlements in the jungles of Cambodia.
What is a Killing Field?
Merriam Webster defines a killing field as a scene of mass destruction as in a battle or massacre. The Cambodian Killing Field facts point to the heinous efforts of the Khmer Rouge murdering perceived political opponents.
How many killing fields are there in Cambodia?
In a country that is one quarter the size of Texas more that 150 execution centers existed throughout Cambodia.
How many people were killed in the killing fields of Cambodia?
The sad truth is that the numbers of those lost in the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields will likely never be known. Estimates of the Cambodia genocide range widely from 1.5 to 3.4 million people or 25 percent of Cambodia’s population at the time. The total number of deaths include that from starvation and disease.
Which people were chosen to be executed?
At the Cambodia Killing Fields those executed included all former government officials or anyone having or suspected of having connections to a foreign government. All professionals, intellectuals, ethnic Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Cambodian Christians, Buddhist monks and all their family members were murdered.
The hypocrisy of the situation reveals itself in the fact that many of the leaders of the Khmer rouge and Pol Pot himself were university educated.
Why did the rest of the world do nothing to stop the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge?
At the time Bruce Springsteen released his third album, Saturday Night Live made its television debut and Microsoft became a registered trademark, the western world had grown weary of war. The length and impact of the Vietnam War on the United States left the country fatigued and prone to ignoring the unverified facts of genocide coming out of Cambodia.
When did the genocide in Cambodia end?
On December 25, 1978 Vietnam launched a full attack on Cambodia. On January 7th Phonm Penh fell away from the control of the Khmer Rouge and the leader Pol Pot was deposed.
What happened at S 21 Prison in Phnom Penh?
This former high school was used by the Khmer Rouge as Security Prison 21 (S 21) from 1975 to 1979. Now open to the public, the Tuol Sleng Genocde Museum in Phnom Penh exudes a haunting peacefulness.
The exact number of academics, doctors, teachers engineers and monks imprisoned at this location alone is estimated between 12,000 – 20,000. Here prisoners were tortured into naming family members and associates who in turn were tortured and killed.
The day we visited S 21 we met one of only seven survivors of the prison. As a boy of nine years, Norng Chan Phal managed to hide his brother and other children in a laundry pile on the day the Vietnamese stormed Phnom Penh to end the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
(Norng is the tallest child in the earlier photo with his Vietnamese rescuers)
Through a translator Norng told us his story and asked that we in turn tell others when we returned home so that such atrocity could never happen again. I promised him I would.
Should you visit the Killing Fields?
On the day we visit the memorial park at Choeung Ek, the 17km (11 mi) drive from Phnom Penh does little to prepare me for ghastly history I am about to learn. Constructed to encircle mass graves, the silence of those visiting is deafening. Filled with shock, sadness and respect we follow our guide while others listen to self audio guides, tears streaming down faces.
The memorial park centers around a Buddhist stupa. Glass walled, it holds over 5000 skulls of those whose lives were taken, most executed after interrogation at S21.
Dozens of mass graves are visible above the ground, many which have not yet been excavated. The reality of pieces of clothing or bits of bone appearing after rainfall leaves us chilled to the core by the senseless tragedy.
A visit to the Cambodia Killing Fields will be a personal decision. More important is the understanding that only forty years ago millions of innocent people were executed as the world largely ignored the deplorable events.
To child survivor Norng Chan Phal my apologies for taking more than half a year to tell the story. I hope you will join me in ensuring Norng’s and millions of voiceless victims stories are never forgotten.