The term “killing fields” refers to a number of sites in Cambodia, where large numbers of people were tortured, killed and then buried by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime. I visited one such killing field named Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh. Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran, coined the term “killing fields.” The Khmer Rouge were in power from 1975 to 1979, immediately following the Cambodian civil war (1970-1975). Pol Pot, sometimes referred to as “Cambodia’s Hitler” was responsible for this mass genocide. However, he was never brought to justice – either dying from heart failure or suicide, i.e., no one knows for sure because he was cremated before an autopsy could be performed.
Approximately 2.2 million people were killed and some estimates have the figure as high as 3.4 million. There were 20,000 grave sites researched, many of them mass grave sites. Consequently, no one knows for sure how many people were killed by this regime.
I also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site is a former high school converted into the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21). This “house of horrors” was used to torture and kill over 20,000 Cambodians. Tuol Sleng was only one of 150 execution centers in the country.
I’ll be frank – visiting these two sites was a moving, sad and quite a sobering experience. I also was very angry. How could this happen? Why didn’t anyone stop what was happening here? How can people be so cruel to other people? I still have no answers to these and other questions I thought about while there. Do I regret going? Not at all. This is just my opinion, but I think everyone should visit these two sites or other killing fields in Cambodia . . . or, for that matter – any of the holocaust sites in Germany. By bearing witness to what went on here, I think for myself – it is something that had to be done. Walking through both sites, the hair on my arms was raised just thinking about how many people were tortured and killed without a second thought of mercy. I’ll just say it was an unbelievable experience unlike any I have ever had.
Dozens of mass graves are visible above ground, many which have not been excavated yet. Commonly, bones and clothing surface after heavy rainfalls due to the large number of bodies still buried in shallow mass graves. It is not uncommon to run across the bones or teeth of the victims scattered on the surface as one tours the memorial park. If these are found, visitors are asked to notify a memorial park officer or guide.
Upon entering both sites, the tourist conversation quieted to silence. Similarly, these photos – most without captions – tell the story of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng.