Located just outside of Phnom Penh, the infamous Cambodia Killing Fields are one of the most important places you can visit in Cambodia to understand the history of the Khmer People. As I mentioned before, I had read Loung Ung’s book First They Killed My Father about her history living under the Khmer Rouge’s oppressions before my visit. Her story gave me great background into the atrocities committed by the regime, but the memorial gave me an even deeper understanding of the suffering of the Cambodian people. (For additional background on the Khmer Rouge, I also recommend a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum)
To get to the Killing Fields, I took a Tuk Tuk from my hotel in Phnom Penh. I arrived early and the park was deserted. Unlike the highly organized welcome center and bus parking lot outside of Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields is entered via a small ticket booth off of a dirt road. The man who sold me a ticket offered me a guided tour for $6 which I accepted.
The focal point of the memorial park is a large mausoleum house the remains that were found in the killing fields when the mass graves were exhumed in the 1980s. The Killing Fields were so named because they served as the Khmer Rouge execution grounds as they killed off the Cambodian people. Much like the better known Nazi’s, the Khmer Rouge practiced extreme social re-engineering. However, unlike the Nazi’s the Khmer Rouge focused their efforts, and the resulting genocide, on their own people.
According to my guide, around 15,000 people were found buried in the shallow graves littered throughout the memorial park. But those deaths are only half the story. As part of their “new society,” the Khmer Rouge, under their leader Pol Pot, evacuated the city of Phnom Penh and sent the residents to the countryside to perform hard labor in the rice fields. They destroyed schools and hospitals, murdered professors, doctors and government officials, and abolished currency. They held puppet trials for their “political prisoners” at elementary schools turned prisons of torture and then executed entire families in the fields outside Phnom Penh.
As my guide took me around the Killing Fields, he told me about the many atrocities that occurred there during the 1970s. One tree, he told me, was used to kill the babies and small children of the “prisoners.” Soldiers would hold the small infants by their feet and smash their heads against the tree. Another tree nearby was outfitted with speakers that played loud noise to cover the moans of the victims.
A nearby groundskeeper raked away leaves using only one arm. My guide told me he had had the other chopped off when he was caught steal food to feed his family forty years ago. Despite the thousands of people the Khmer Rouge forced to work in the rice fields, the Khmer Rouge refused to use modern food harvesting technology and the country was struck with famine. Without any money, and only small rations from the Khmer Rouge, families were forced to steal or illegally grow food to keep their families alive. As evidenced by the groundskeeper, the penalties for getting caught were steep.
In addition to forcing the Cambodian people out of their homes, they were also deprived of all their possessions and forced to wear black uniforms. Each person wore a red scarf to symbolize the Khmer Rouge, the ‘Red Cambodians.’
As I walked around the sunken graves, my guide pointed out bits of bone and clothing. Because the graves were so shallow, the heavy rains in Cambodia often wash these remnants to the surface. The curators of the museum routinely gather these remains and store them in the mausoleum and other glass display cases throughout the memorial park.