Part Two: The Killing Fields
The first full day that Marta and I were in Cambodia saw us travel to both the Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields. In the next two posts I will be posting largely factual articles, with a touch of my own personal thoughts. Please note – this post will contain some images and stories that some may find disturbing.
In my last post, I wrote about the horrors of S-21, an infamous prison camp used by the Khmer Rouge during their four year hold over Cambodia. This post will detail what would become the inevitable next step for the prisoners of S-21 – the Killing Fields.
Some of you may be asking “So, what are the Killing Fields?” and even those who have heard of them may not know the true extent of the horror that was carried out here. The Killing Fields is a collective name for a number of different sites used by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 to execute and bury their prisoners. Overall, it is believed that more than a million people met their ends in the Killing Fields. It was the final step in what amounted to nothing more than a state sponsored genocide. Estimates of the total number of deaths is around 1,386,734 victims from the 20,000 mass graves that have been discovered so far.
The regime of Pol Pot arrested and (eventually) executed anyone believed to be associated with the former government and foreign governments, along with professionals and intellectuals like teachers (ironic, given that a lot of the most important Khmer Rouge leaders had been teachers themselves). This paranoid cruelty even extended to those of a different ethnic background – ethnic Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese (to name but a few) were also executed by the regime. It is thought that over 2 million people (around a quarter of the total population) were killed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
So, how did people end up being arrested and eventually executed under the Khmer Rouge? Well, the judicial process began with a warning system for minor or political crimes. If you received more than two warnings, you would be sent off for ‘re-education’ – during the regime, this meant almost certain death. The prisoners were often encouraged to confess to made up crimes, such as contact with a foreigner or their pre-revolutionary actions and crimes (for example, free market activity). They were told that the regime would forgive them of these crimes if they admitted to them. In reality, they would be taken to a prison like Tuol Sleng (S-21) for torture and execution. The execution would end up taking place in the Killing Fields.
The first stop for prisoners at the Killing Fields would have been the truck stop. This was the place where trucks transporting prisoners from S-21 (and other prisons) would arrive. Initially, they normally arrived 2 or 3 times a month and would hold 20-30 prisoners. After being unloaded from the truck, prisoners would normally be taken straight the the pit or ditch where they would be blindfolded and executed. They would be buried in mass graves. Bullets were considered expensive, so victims were often executed with poison, spades or other tools and sharpened bamboo sticks.
As the regime of Pol Pot continued, prisoners began to arrive in greater numbers. Eventually, a detention centre was built to hold them – sometimes, over 300 prisoners a day would arrive and the executions could no longer take place immediately. Inside, the conditions were awful and the lighting was so poor, prisoners could not see each other. With the construction of these buildings, executions could be spread over several days.
If you thought it could not get darker, then you are mistaken. To stop them from growing up and taking revenge for the executions of their parents, children and infants were often killed alongside adults. This was done in a particularly brutal way – they were often beaten to death on the trunks of trees in front of their parents and tossed into mass graves alongside the other victims. The execution process was turned into a well oiled machine over the 4 years of Pol Pot’s regime.
Today, the site is open to tourists as a sobering reminder of the evil that mankind is possible of undertaking. Mass graves, many still not excavated, are visible throughout as sunken pits in the ground. The shallow graves mean that, more often than not, you will see fragments of clothing and bones coming up to the surface of the soil.
Well, this is all I have to say about the Killing Fields. They truly were a haunting experience, and a harrowing reminder of what has been called the ‘worst genocide of the 20th Century since the Holocaust.