After visiting the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, we headed to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. It is only one of the 300 killing fields discovered in Cambodia. The genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge disposed their victims in mass graves.
After about minutes from Toul Sleng Museum by tuktuk, dirt roads led us to a rather peaceful area of Choeung Ek. It was surprising that a few kilometers from the city, typical rural surroundings replaced the urban elements of Phnom Penh–water hyacinth farms, wooden houses on stilts, rows of palm trees and coconut trees, ricefields, small stores of fruits and vegetables, school children walking, women doing laundry outdoors and elderly on their hammocks. I like views like this; it provides the opportunity to reflect while watching the daily lives of the local people. But what’s interesting is the stark contrast of Cambodian life in terms of lifestyle and infrastructure development considering the short distance we traveled. (This is one of the observations I noted in my post “Phnom Penh at a Glance“.)
An eerie feeling engulfed me as soon as we entered the Killing Fields. The surroundings were peaceful yet the silence of that place was painful. The strangeness of the place was interrupted by the ticketing office and the man who provided us with audio guides. After all, this is now a tourist destination meant to educate visitors about the Khmer Rouge and how they committed genocide in this country.
It is important to visit the Toul Sleng Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields at the same day in order to understand better how the Khmer Rouge killed their victims. Prisoners from Toul Sleng were transported by trucks to Choeung Ek to be executed. Before, the Khmer Rouge soldiers killed and disposed their victims near Toul Sleng but when the putrid smell of decaying bodies turned intolerable, they decided to move their killing fields and mass graves farther from the prison.
There were several stops where the method of execution was described in the audio guide. Realizing that this was the same short journey the victims took before they were sent to the graves, sometimes still alive, with hundreds of other people including children, was haunting. The small buildings and shacks that used to stand there for administrative and security purposes proved how systematic was the execution done by the Khmer Rouge.
Even after nearly 3 decades, remains were still there on the grounds. After the excavation of this place, these evidences were preserved. Sometimes, especially after a heavy rain, small bone fragments and teeth still emerge from the wet soil.
Visitors pay their respects to the victims by offering Buddhist bracelets tied on bamboo poles, trees, and altar. It’s the least thing we could do for the thousands of lives now resting in this place.
I listened to the stories of the survivors from the audio guide. They shared how they witnessed the Khmer Rouge killing their families, how they escaped and survived hunger and torture. There was also a recording of the confession of Duch, the Prison Director. I walked around the small lake as I painfully listen to these stories while imagining how a certain group of people had turned this peaceful resting place for the dead into a bloody ground for massacres. I couldn’t. The activities of the Khmer Rouge during their 4-year reign surely made a dent into the history of Cambodia–a dent that needs to be filled in by justice.
We stopped by the museum located before the exit. Photos and clothes of the victims and weapons and uniforms of the Khmer Rouge were displayed there.
As I approach the exit, my audio guide played the music the victims heard before they were executed. Until now, I’m lost for words to honestly describe how I felt at that moment. The trip to the Toul Sleng Museum and the Choeung Ek killing fields was the most depressing but enlightening part of my 3-week field research here in Phnom Penh.
I want to end this post by requesting you a moment of silence to remember or pray for the victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and for justice to be served to them and their families.