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Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Killing Fields

The text on the board reads: Magic Tree... The tree was used as a tool to hang a loud speaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.
There seems to be something of a sweepstake in Cambodia as to how long you can go without mentioning Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge, and having just recently visited the Killing Fields - my lot is up.

Say the word ‘Cambodia’ and you hear the word ‘Genocide’, and that would be about right. For over 20 years Cambodia has been at the brunt of civil war, the Vietnamese war and the Pol Pot regime. Did you know that during the Vietnamese war the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia and neighbouring Lao than were dropped on Germany during World War II? Cambodia is also home to the world’s largest landmine belt, K-5 which stretches all the way from the Gulf of Thailand to the Lao boarder. And this is before we begin to even think about what happened during the years of the Khmer Rouge.

The goal of the Khmer Rouge (to give a brief history lesson) was to create an entirely self-sufficient and independent Cambodia that focused 100% on farming and the production of crops. In order to do this, Pol Pot ordered the immediate evacuation of all towns and cities. Within hours of his being in power, Phnom Penh was emptied and its citizens forced to walk miles into the provincial towns and work as slaves. But it didn’t stop there. As part of a cleansing ritual Pol Pot ordered the death of hundreds of thousands of Khmer – many of whom were tortured within the confines of S-21, an old school come prison that has since been preserved as a memorial museum. Look up, and you can still see blood stains on the ceiling and shackles on the floor. Bullets apparently, were too expensive.

Throughout Cambodia all trained intellectuals were killed, and as the regime gathered momentum this grew to include people that wore glasses, people whose names were too long and, of course, anyone that dared to question Pol Pot’s army. Indirectly, others died of exhaustion, starvation and disease.

The Khmer Rouge ruled for a total of three years, eight months and twenty days, between the years of 1975-1979. No-one has yet to put a figure on the exact number killed, but to give an idea – the Killing Fields of Choeung-Ek commemorate almost 9000 counted people. Only 43 of the 129 mass graves here have been exhumed, and the Killing Fields of Choeng-Ek are one of hundreds of sites found all over Cambodia.

It is difficult to describe the effect this knowledge has on you. Especially as you walk round the site of Choeng-Ek, which incidentally has been privatized so that a Japanese company can make some cash out of Cambodia’s tragedy. Choeng-Ek is very much a memorial garden, with the central focus being the Memorial Stupa which displays some 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age. There are also several other ‘points of interest’ – I wont go into too much detail, but I think the photo at the opening of this entry sums it up quite well. I felt quite awkward taking photos and only took two – I wanted to give an idea of what the Killing Fields were like, without being a tourist about it.

It is startling to think that every person in Cambodia over the age of 30 has a memory of the Khmer Rouge years. Many worked as slaves, others were soldiers, and yet no-one is openly resentful. My language teacher, for example, not only survived the Vietnamese war and the Khmer Rouge years, but also then spent the following 15 years in a Thai refugee camp. In total he has spent almost the sum of my entire life surviving, not living. But to look at him and to talk to him – you wouldn’t know. Everyone here has a story. Yet people seem to accept was has happened as history, and are just so relieved that they are living in fairly peaceful times that no-one is prepared to rock the boat.

For all its problems, for the country to have rebuilt itself as it has is really incredible. Even if I do keep having to have showers by torch-light.


  1. Lovely to hear your voice today, Your article on the Khymer Rouge was very interesting and informative. You write well and should save the blogs for publication! Sorry you're not living in squalor as you'd hoped but I'm sure you'll make the best of it.
    lots of love, Dad. xx

  2. Hi Jen,

    You dad is right - this was so interesting to read and you explain things so well, no wonder you trained to be a teacher! Hope everything's ok and you're not getting too down about all the things that have happened there. Just think - you being there is making many people's lives better already.

    Speak soon,
    Jo xxx

  3. Hi, Jen,
    This entry is very stomach churning - it must be amazing to speak to people who have actually lived through the horrors that you describe so sensitively. Jo's comment about your being there sums it up - so keep on spreading your caring sunshine!
    Tons of love,
    Mum XX

  4. Hi Jen,

    Great article, I think one of the best things about travelling & living in other places is seeing this kind of thing first hand...

    Dave C