No One Was Safe: The Choeung Ek Killing Fields

When in Phnom Penh, a must-visit if you can handle it, is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, better known to tourists as the Killing Fields.

Commemorative stupa, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatTourists are often surprised to see that the sign on the gate has no reference to ‘Killing Fields,’ but what they’re about to learn is that this is because this is only one of over three hundred fields in Cambodia used for this purpose during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

But that’s only the beginning of this awful story.

Bracelets on a mass grave, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKat(Note: In case you’re fuzzy on the history, I’ve summarized the context of how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power here).

When the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, effectively coming into power over the country, the first step towards a pure, loyal, and self-sufficient country was to deport citizens out of the cities and into the countryside in order to put them to work. Those that refused, or were simply too slow to leave, were murdered. Lake, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThose that made it to the work farms were put to slave labor, including the task of tripling the country’s rice production. But the task was impossible; the people often had no training, and were routinely overworked and starved to death. This is why these farms are now known as the Killing Fields.

Mass grave of 450 victims. Killing Fields, Cheung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatBut it wasn’t only workers that ended up in Choeung Ek. Prisoners from the S21 detention facility were also brought here, often under the guise of being transported to a new living space.

Some knew what was coming and were relieved: the hell that they had been going through – the torture, sickness, loneliness and hopelessness – was finally going to come to an end.

Upon arrival they would be forced to sign a false confession, in essence signing their own death warrant, and then would be taken to the pits.

Mass grave holes, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKat Note: The following paragraphs are gruesome, graphic and real. Please PLEASE don’t read if you are easily disturbed, or would simply prefer not to have these images in your head. Click here to skip (beware the skulls).

Regardless of where they came from, everyone was subject to the horror within.

Revolutionary songs would wail over the speakers, blending with the diesel generators and effectively covering the screams of the victims. Death did not come easily. Bullets were expensive and the Khmer Rouge used whatever was cheap and available, often beating and hacking the victims to death with anything from hammers to shovels, blunt objects, or the sharp teeth of sugar palm leaves. DDT would be poured over their bodies to finish the job and mask the smell. Sugar palm saws, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatNo one was safe, not even innocent babies, whose heads were smashed against the ‘baby killing tree’ before they were tossed into pits. Pol Pot required assurance that no one would come back and seek revenge for their family members’ deaths, so families were always murdered whole.

The children beating tree, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatNote: Gruesome part over.

A commemorative stupa now stands at the front center of Choeung Ek welcoming visitors to the site. It is a lovely structure from the outside, but inside are the skulls and bones of about 9,000 victims, reminding every generation that passes through of the savagery that transpired barely 40 years ago under Pol Pot’s paranoid and fearful reign.

“Who were these people that they were such a threat?” The voice on the audio guide asks.

I’d like to know, too.Victim skulls in the stupa, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatContinue to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum – Coming Soon

Back to the eventual end of Pol Pot’s reign.

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is 15km from Phnom Penh center, and is best reachable by tuk tuk. It is open everyday from 9-18. Allow yourself at least an hour to walk around, and up to 3 hours if you invest in the comprehensive audio guide. Entrance: $2. With audio guide: $5. Note: The audio guide is led by a survivor and will take you through each of the important stops, adding in context, background and personal experiences to the tour. It is well worth the time and money.

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