96. Cambodia’s Killing Fields

Two historical sites in Phnom Penh recall the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Genocide of the late 1970s.

Thousands of skulls, victims of the Cambodian genocide, are displayed in the pagoda at Choeung Ek. (JGA photo)

I find it impossible to fathom the inhumanity of genocide. What can be said about the deliberate killing of an entire group of people simply because they are the “wrong” ethnicity, or the “wrong” religion, or the “wrong” ideology?

The Holocaust is the most widely known example. As many as 7 million European Jews, and a similar number of Slavs, died during Nazi Germany’s World War II-era ethnic purification program as directed by Adolf Hitler. But that wasn’t the first, nor the last. Only a few years earlier, Russia’s Josef Stalin had slaughtered at least 3 million Ukrainians during the forced famine called the Holodomor. The Ottoman Empire decimated Turkey’s population of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks between 1915 and 1920. A century earlier, Tasmanian Aboriginals were slain to extinction in colonial Australia.

Genocides continue today. Consider the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Darfurs in the Sudan, the Uyghurs in Chinese Xinjiang and the Rohingya in Myanmar, to name several recent (and, in the latter two cases, ongoing) examples.

But of all post-Holocaust slaughters, none was as profound as the Cambodian Genocide. Over a period of not many more than 3½ years (1975 to 1979), about 25 percent of Cambodia’s population was systematically massacred. At least 2 million people were tortured and murdered. Entire families, men, women, children, were eliminated. Satan was alive and well in “The Killing Fields.”

Barbed wire draped across prison buildings at Tuol Sleng was intended to thwart suicide attempts. (JGA photo)

Agrarian utopia

During the last days of the Vietnam War in April 1975, Cambodia’s pro-American government was overthrown by the Communist Party of Kampuchea under the leadership of Pol Pot. His ideology deeply rooted in Marxist-Leninist thought, Pol Pot rallied his Khmer Rouge army in support of his vision of a self-sufficient agrarian society, founded on the principles of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China and free of foreign influence.

Pol Pot set out to achieve this goal by forcing citizens out of the cities and into forced labor camps. Of course, urbanites were ill-prepared for 12-hour days of manual labor. Physical abuse, malnutrition and disease were more the rule than the exception. Those who couldn’t keep up were summarily executed.

About 450 execution victims filled a mass grave, 16 feet (5 meters) deep, at Choeung Ek. (JGA photo)

Anyone who might be considered a threat to the new regime, which called itself Democratic Kampuchea, was arrested and killed. Anyone with ties to the former government was dispatched post-haste. The list extended to teachers, students and other intellectuals; doctors, lawyers, journalists and business leaders; even Buddhist monks. If you just looked like you might be smart — wearing glasses, perhaps, or speaking a foreign language — you were in trouble.

Ironically, for the most part, the Khmer Rouge and their victims were all members of the same ethnic group, the Khmer. This gave the Cambodian Genocide a unique and insidious character. Persecutors and victims spoke the same language and had the same (Theravada Buddhist) religious beliefs. Yes, there were ethnic minorities, including Vietnamese and Chinese Cambodians and the Islamic Cham people; but the millions who died were overwhelmingly Khmer.

Mercifully, the bloodshed ended at the start of 1979. On Christmas Day 1978, angered by Khmer Rouge attacks on towns in the lower Mekong Delta, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Within two weeks, the brutal regime had fallen as the Vietnamese took control.

Tuol Sleng was a public high school before it became a high-security prison in the 1970s. (JGA photo)

Confess and die

The horror will not soon be forgotten. In the capital city of Phnom Penh, two somber sites are constant reminders. I visited both of them — the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center — in the same day.

More than 18,000 prisoners passed through the gates of Security Prison 21 (“S-21”), now known as Tuol Sleng. Only seven survived. A public high school in the heart of Phnom Penh before the Pol Pot era, S-21 was one of 196 prisons the Khmer Rouge operated throughout Cambodia. (Admission is $5, or $10 with an audio tour guide.)

In prisons such as this, suspects were tortured and interrogated until their “confessions” pointed to others, and thus arrests multiplied a hundredfold. Separated from their parents, children were often manipulated to invent stories and squeal on their family members.

A tourist studies the ground floor cell doors of Building A at Tuol Sleng prison. (JGA photo)

Four three-story buildings that surround a quadrangle comprise the largest part of the museum. Classrooms, converted to cells, contain solitary metal-frame beds and photos of death. Some of the upper levels have exhibits with mug shots of men, women and children who suffered here, along with clothing and instruments of torture. It is indeed heartbreaking to look at the tattered remnants of boys’ shorts and little girls’ frilly dresses,

The ground level of Building C is wrapped in barbed wire, reportedly a suicide-prevention device. This baffled me: If the prisoners were going to be executed in any event, why try to stop them?

Indeed, when torture and interrogation at S-21 had run their course, the prisoners were loaded into trucks and taken to the Killing Fields for execution.

The gates of Choeung Ek exude a hushed silence befitting a site where thousands were massacred. (JGA photo0

Eliminating enemies

Tuol Sleng displays graphic photographs that illustrate unspeakable horror. Choeung Ek takes it a step further. Here, mass graves and bones leave nothing to the imagination. The memorial pagoda at the heart of the grounds is stacked with skulls — thousands of them. These were, indeed, the Killing Fields.

An audio tour, included in the $6 admission, is absolutely the best way to explore the grounds. (Plan at least 90 minutes.) It guides you past a series of interpretive signs describing buildings and functions that no longer exist, but whose specter lives for all time.

I was led past a truck stop, the final terminal for prisoners from S-21 and other prisons. Blindfolded and no doubt terrified, as many as 300 a day were promptly executed, their bodies tossed into a pit. To save bullets, they were often beaten to death with pick axes, hatchets, shovels or garden hoes. Victims who had to wait for their doom were shackled and held overnight in a pitch-black building. Chemicals such as DDT were stored nearby; immediately upon execution, these substances were spread over dead bodies to mask the stench.

Colored ribbons and tokens recall each child whose head was bashed against this tree by executioners. (JGA photo)

The adjacent grounds had been an orchard and Chinese cemetery before they were taken over by the Pol Pot regime. The earth was receptive to digging. Sunken depressions, only partially redeemed by two generations of rainfall and erosion, still indicate a series of mass graves. One fenced plot has been retained. A sign indicates that 450 bodies were piled here.

In some places, even 45 years later, bone fragments find their way through the soft soil to break ground, where they are collected by caretakers. The walking-tour route winds past deposits of some of these skeletal remains, along with piles of blindfolds and strips of clothing. Two broad-trunked trees are particularly disturbing. One is noted as a place where infants and toddlers had their skulls fractured before they were tossed into a pit; the other was hung with loudspeakers that played martial music to drown out the screams and moans of the dying.

The pagoda at the heart of Choeung Ek harbors thousands of human skulls taen from mass graves. (JGA photo)

The horror culminates at the memorial pagoda at the heart of the complex. It is a repository for thousands of human skulls, a macabre tower of terror. Many of them have been categorized by age and gender, juvenile to elderly. With shoes and hats removed, visitors may reverently squeeze around all four sides of the glass-encased cenotaph.

Nearby is a bronze statue of a mother and child. A plaque, in the Khmer and English languages, reads: “Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime. … 17.04.1975 – 07.01.1979”

The history of the human race is one of continual conquests. As one civilization falters, another rises to take its place. No society, no government, persists for more than a few centuries at best. But that’s a natural progression, and there is nothing natural about bullying and genocide. If we cannot keep our place of power, we can at least maintain our honor, our integrity. Mass murder is never the way.

Choeung Ek’s mother-and-child statue asks that mankind “never forget.” (JGA photo)
The skulls of scores of genocide victims are a sad reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

4 thoughts on “96. Cambodia’s Killing Fields

  1. Powerful piece. I did not want to read it, but needed to. While reading I could not help but see the seeds of hate in our American society that are trying to germinate.


    1. So sad and too true, Larry. Changes are a’comin’. How are you doing, my friend? You’ve had some challenges … J


      1. The only thing wrong with me is an abundance of birthdays. I’m doing pretty good, some doctors are trying to institute Draconian measures, you know, lie trying to take away my coffee and alcohol. I sought second and third opinions before a cardiologist allowed one coffee per day and an occasional wine and beer.

        Which brings to mind a question for you. Do you have special health insurance for your travels?


  2. Take away coffee and alcohol? Now, THAT would kill me! I drink coffee before 3pm, red wine after, and not much else. And female companionship is far from scarce. I can’t afford health insurance, so I keep up my Medicare in the event (heaven forbid) I need to evacuate to the US for emergency care. Thankfully, the cost of health care here runs about 10% of what it does in the States, and the few prescriptions I need are sold over the counter.


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