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Memorial stupa filled with the skulls of the victims at the killing field of Choeung Ek.

Memorial stupa filled with the skulls of the victims at the killing field of Choeung Ek.

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.

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The "killing tree" which was used by camp guards to kill babies. Specifically, they would take a baby from a mother and smash the baby's head against this tree.

The “killing tree” which was used by camp guards to kill babies. Specifically, they would take a baby from a mother and smash the baby’s head against this tree. The rationale was to kill the infants so they would not grow up and take revenge for the killing of their parents.

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In order to save ammunition, poison and common garden tools such as spades were used to kill the prisoners. Sometimes sharpened bamboo sticks were used as well.

In order to save ammunition, poison and common garden tools such as spades were used to kill the prisoners. Sometimes sharpened bamboo sticks were used as well.

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Security Regulations at Tuol Sleng S-21 prison.

Security Regulations at Tuol Sleng S-21 prison.

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Photo taken of one of the last victims interrogated, tortured, and killed at Tuol Sleng. When the Vietnamese routed the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, they found this victim, still chained to the "bed" used for securing a prisoner while he was questioned and tortured.

Photo taken of one of the last victims interrogated, tortured, and killed at Tuol Sleng. When the Vietnamese routed the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, they found this victim, still chained to the “bed” used for securing a prisoner while he was questioned and tortured.

Photo of another prisoner killed by his fleeing captors only hours before the prison was taken by the Vietnamese.

Photo of another prisoner killed by his fleeing captors only hours before the prison was taken by the Vietnamese.

Gallows used to torture prisoners or kill them outright by hanging. Those are water basins below where prisoners were "dunk" head first via the gallows pole.

Gallows used to torture prisoners or kill them outright by hanging. Those are water basins below where prisoners were “dunk” head first via the gallows pole.

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Prison cell. Empty ammo box was used by the prisoner to defecate in.

Prison cell. Empty ammo box was used by the prisoner to defecate in.

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Pisey, a Cambodian friend of mine, told me that her mother, shown in this photograph, testified at a War Crimes tribunal regarding her own mother (Pisey's grandmother) who was taken to Tuol Sleng and murdered by her captors.

Pisey, a Cambodian friend of mine, told me that her mother, shown in this photograph, testified at a War Crimes tribunal regarding her own mother (Pisey’s grandmother) who was taken to Tuol Sleng and murdered by her captors.

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Water torture chamber.

Water torture chamber.

Buddhist memorial at Tuol Sleng.

Buddhist memorial at Tuol Sleng.

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