Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek
We now come to Phnom Penh. The day’s excursion had been weighing on my mind as I wasn’t sure how I was going to react to walking through “The Killing Fields,” the site of mass torture and death. This is a contemporary atrocity, occurring in the 1970’s when one in five Cambodians living at the time were murdered – two million souls were lost. The journey I had taken to the many concentration camps of Central Europe a number of years ago had been an overwhelming, traumatic experience. Although I left Auschwitz shaking and crying I nevertheless felt it was necessary to see the remains firsthand. I felt the same way about the Killing Fields – there was never a thought of not going. We must never forget.
The monster that lead this horrific catastrophe was Pol Pot, a well-educated man who despite being schooled in Europe felt an affinity with Communistic ideals. The Khmer Rouge (the Communist Party of Kampuchea) was created in 1968 as a splinter group of the People’s Army fighting in North Vietnam. Some historians believe that the USA’s bombing raid that inadvertently (or not) hit Cambodia helped the radicalization of the Khmer Rouge.
Once the Khmer Rouge took power, they had the entire population of Phnom Penh evacuated to the countryside. All citizens were to become equal as rural peasants. What actually happened was a systematic rounding up of intellectuals, minorities or any that didn’t seem to “fit” the new ideology. They were summarily tortured and executed in the fields of Choeung Ek, formerly a fruit orchard. The area is now a memorial to all those who lost their lives.
The memorial at Choeung Ek is one of 81 memorial sites that honor those interred in almost 18,000 burial pits that have been uncovered across all Cambodia, a sad testament to the brutal, murdeous regime of the Khmer Rouge:
It was difficult to follow the boardwalk constructed over the mass gravesites and to read markers detailing the atrocities that occurred. People – men, women, children – were usually executed immediately after arriving and the torturous methods of destroying these people were beyond any horror story you may have read.
I took no pictures while there – it was just too sad – but in a section or two there were clouds of butterflies floating above the grass-covered gravesites, and they gave me some sense of peace for the ones who were lost.
Our guide Sokun lost many members of his family and escaped the same fate himself by traveling through the jungles to find safety . Yet he has no desire for revenge – he will never forget, but has opted to move on. Such inner strength is to be admired.
We also met another survivor, Chum Mey who “confessed” to being a CIA agent and other lies under agonising torture by the Khmer Rouge. He was saved from execution due to his skill with repairing typewriters.
Chum Mey is not forgiving – he went to the trials of the Khmer Rouge to testify and upon hearing the life sentence for one of his torturers he said, “When the verdict was read, I wanted to fly off the chair. I wanted to scream but I was afraid the judge would say there’s something wrong with that guy. I wanted to scream ‘Justice is alive. Justice is alive.'”
Chum Mey created the Association of Victims of Democratic Kampuchea that provides assistance to those in need, using some of the proceeds of his book: