Cambodia is growing in popularity as a tourist destination but there is a extremely dark side to the history of this country.
In the late seventies, the Khmer Rouge came to power and forced the country’s population out of the cities and into rural areas. Under the Khmer Rouge and dictator Pol Pot’s twisted view on reality, the country was to be converted into an agrarian society, abandoning urban life. They would control every element of every person’s lives and violently deal with those who disagreed.
The country is healing rapidly, but the scars still remain from what became a genocide – it is estimated a quarter of the country’s population perished under the regime.
Today, the most poignant sites of the genocide have been opened to the public. It’s a sensitive topic, whether sites like this serve to memorialise or trivialise the history. In my opinion it is very much the former, providing visitors with an understanding of the tragedy and ensuring we never see its like again.
There are two main sites that provide a history of the genocide and first was the Killing Fields. It’s a graphically literal name, a place where the Khmer Rouge would execute thousands of men, women, children and infants. I rode a tuk tuk out of town, about a 45 minute drive to the site. It was interesting chance to observe some of the life on the outskirts of the cities. It wasn’t quite the slums, but the poverty was visible. It was just people getting on with their lives, small vignettes of Cambodia. At the Killing Fields I was given a headset for an audio tour, providing information at various stops. There’s introductions to where trucks came in with the prisoners, all of whom were kept in darkness and fear. Most of the buildings that existed at the Killing Fields were torn down after the collapse of the regime, but the ground itself holds the history. Boardwalks wind between hollows in the ground – the mass graves of the Killing Fields. In total 8,895 people died in this relatively small area. It is difficult to truly grasp the scale of inhumanity that took place.
The majority of the remains were exhumed, but far from all of them. It’s a confronting moment to realise that the white rocks in the ground aren’t rock, but human bone. Signs warn where you should respectfully tread with the blunt message ‘Don’t Step on Bone.’ Time gradually reveals what is hidden under the ground. Piece of fabric, the clothes or rags people were wearing as they were bludgeoned to death, slowly appear from the dirt, colours muted.
There are several important areas at the Killing Fields. The saddest of them all is the Killing Tree. Here the Khmer Rouge killed infants and small children by swinging them from the feet and smashing their heads against the bark.
This display case had a lid that could be opened to place remains as they emerged, whether from excavation such as the nearby workers completing the boardwalk, or from rain. Here you can see teeth in the corner, the wire used to bind hands and what is left of the clothing.
A skeleton materialises through the dirt with the clothes this poor soul was wearing when he or she was murdered.
In the centre of the Killing Fields is a tower filled with the bones of some 5,000 people. At the lower level the skulls are displayed in an emotionally jarring way.
People were generally not shot at the Killing Fields – bullets are expensive. Instead most were in some way beaten to death. Some of the skulls are marked with cause of death. The lucky ones have a small hole from a bullet, the most unfortunate have their entire skull caved in from crow bars, axes, sharpened bamboo or iron rods.
I’ve been to a place similar in feeling to the Killing Fields before, the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. I wondered as I looked at a tree, or looked at a sky, was this the last thing someone saw before they died?
Leaving the Killing Fields, I asked the tuk tuk driver to take me to the other major site open for tourists, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Perhaps even more brutal than the Killing Fields themselves, this was where prisoners were tortured and forced to confess to their invented crimes before being taken away to be slaughtered. It was a high school before the Khmer Rouge took over and the grounds have that familiar layout. It is difficult to contrast the happiness of children attending a school to what would go on here. The school rooms were converted as needs demanded. Some had an iron bed where prisoners would be chained and tortured. Others were prisons with tiny brick cells. Barbed wire covered the outside of the buildings to prevent prisoners leaping off the upper levels to commit suicide. In total 17,000 prisoners passed through the gates – there were only seven known survivors.
Read the rules prisoners were required to abide by. The language itself is indicative of the insanity of this regime.
Neither of these ‘attractions’ will leave you with happiness in your heart, but what they do provide is a sense of contrast for your own life. Be glad that you have the life you have, because there is a great chance it is far better than what these people endured.