Hanoi, Vietnam – In 1975 the ruthless communist dictator Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia, ushering in the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s vision was one of an agrarian society founded on equality and self sufficiency. To achieve his goal, Pol Pot exiled everyone from the cities, closed the country’s borders with land mines, disbanded modern institutions associated with education, medicine, free trade, and the media, and forced all people in Cambodia to move to collective farms (ie. work camps) throughout the Cambodian countryside. The mass migration from the cities tore families apart and forced people to leave all of their belongings behind, while the loss of all social institutions completely halted the Cambodian economy and led to great sickness and starvation.
Pol Pot said his heroes were Cambodian farmers and laborers, and he claimed that those living in the cities (especially educated professionals such as doctors and lawyers) were traitors for leaving their more rural brethren to live in fear and poverty amid the horror and carnage that resulted from US bombing during the Vietnam War. To consolidate his power, Pol Pot executed anyone who could undermine his authority (the educated professionals) or anyone he thought was a traitor to his perfect society.
While his rule lasted only until 1979 (when Cambodia was liberated by Vietnam), an estimated 1-3 million people died (one-quarter to one-third of the total population of Cambodia) from the executions and due to a lack of food and medical care during the mass migration to and the forced labor at the work camps. While families would reunite after liberation, many will never know what happened to loved ones who disappeared during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot and have yet to come home.
One of the most notorious prisons, known as S21, where dissenters and the educated were taken was in Phnom Penh. They would be forced to confess their guilt to false charges before being taken outside of the city and executed at places now known as killing fields. While traveling in Cambodia I visited one of these killing fields outside Phnom Penh – Choeung Ek, and while I it may be disturbing and uncomfortable I think its story, which also tells the story of Cambodia, deserves to be told.
Prisoners were transported to Choeung Ek by truck from the S21 prison in Phnom Penh. Upon arrival most prisoners were summarily executed by firing squad and buried in pits and trenches.Chemicals, such as DDT, were used to lessen the smell from the rotting bodies and to kill any prisoners still alive after burial.In some cases, guards would use palm fronds and their razor sharp edges to slit the throats of prisoners who did not die immediately.
The mass graves today are indicated by the recesses in the ground. No buildings remain on the site because the local peoples tore them down shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge to salvage building materials and other necessities to help rebuild their lives and Cambodia after years of war and strife.
After floods or long rains, remnants of clothing, bones and teeth still come to the surface. Some are collected while others are left as evidence in ongoing war crimes trials.Babies and small children were grabbed by their legs and flung against this tree, bashing their heads on its trunk, before being thrown in the grave pictured below. Upon discovery in 1980 – after the killings had stopped – blood and brain matter remained on the trunk. The tree remains as a key piece of evidence in war crimes trials. Upon seeing the tree during his trial, Duch – the former commander of Choeung Ek – openly wept and admitted his guilt. Women were also found in the grave, most likely raped and beaten before they were killed and buried.
Called the ‘Magic Tree’, Guards hung a radio and speakers from this tree to play loud music in order to mute the screams and moans of the dying. Combined with the sounds of the diesel generators used to provide electricity, those living near the killing fields assumed there were political party or military meetings taking place behind the walls that were erected. They never knew the horror that was actually taking place until it was too late.
8,895 bodies have been discovered in Choeung Ek’s known mass graves. Many of the remains are now housed in a Buddhist Stupa built on the site (pictured above). Their final resting place is a symbol for peace and a reminder that we all need to remain vigilant against the kind of evil that threatens to tear apart our lives and society.
Epilogue: After invading Cambodia in 1979, Vietnam installed a puppet government that was not recognized by the International Community. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge retreated to the jungle near the Thai border (receiving aid from several countries over the next decade – including the US and Britain – while maintaining their seat in the UN), and launched a civil war against the Vietnamese backed government in Phnom Penh. A constitutional monarchy was eventually established in 1993, after democratic elections were held. However, it wasn’t until 1998 – after a coup d’etat consolidated power in the ruling government – that the Khmer Rouge officially disbanded and ceased to exist.
Pol Pot died in 1998 while under house arrest, but four of his top lieutenants have been arrested and charged with crimes against humanity and genocide. Of these four only Duch, the commander in charge of Choeung Ek mentioned previously, has gone to trial. Duch was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison.