Walking on Bones: The Killing Fields

The two portions of my tour I was most looking forward to were probably the least comfortable. History is important to me when I travel, be it recent or ancient, and I’m especially interested in the wars and violence that have craved the shape of a land. The two points of interest to me: The Killing Fields and the Cu Chi Tunnels.

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The Cambodian genocide, under the command of Pol Pot, is one which is often forgotten in the wake of genocides closer to home. But the amount of people brutally murdered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge with utopian dreams of starting again from zero is simply unforgettable; a cold 3 million at its highest estimation. Or approximately 25% of the population. The stories of the cold-blooded massacres, the slaughter of anyone who even wore glasses – considered a sign of intelligence – and the horrors of the labour camps for the upper classes were enough to make me shiver at the thought of what I might find at the memorial site. It’s a very short distance from Phnom Peng, an easy morning trip out if you’re there and very worth doing. But it’s so amazing to think that people didn’t know what was happening at the famed Killing Fields, a mass grave and a testament to a dictator.

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There is a common misconception, which was also held by me, that there was only one site for the ‘Killing Fields’ but there are in fact many of them, as far as I’m aware this is the only public memorial, or at least the best known. It is a well visited site, and it’s certainly eye-opening. A disclaimer before you run there on my recommendation though; the Cambodian way of treating war history is not the way you may be used to in British museums, it’s raw, it’s brutal and it hits you in the face with very graphic details. It isn’t necessarily unbiased or well translated, but you certainly get the impression.

It’s very peaceful there, no one is running or shouting. A wire fence still surrounds the complex, a grass expanse full of craters, which are the mass graves. Unfortunately not all the bones are contained in the graves, the rainy season every year means that the earth shifts and moves here and you’re very likely to find an ominous white shape lurking uncovered in the soil at your feet; that is very likely somebody’s bone. They haven’t finished excavating them all, I couldn’t quite work out if it was work in progress of if they’re finished. There are still plenty of unidentified people resting under the soil at this site and I think many mass graves will remain as they are, certainly those of babies and children, and some of the soldiers too. The effects of this regime are still obvious across Cambodia; our guide says there isn’t one family who didn’t lose someone, his grandma was killed under the Khmer Rouge and there are still many families who never got an answer to where their relatives went, maybe they survived but they may never know.

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People visiting the site have left bracelets on fences around the graves, one splash of compassionate colour in a rather bleached landscape. We’re told of the speakers that used to hang from the trees here, eerily playing music so passersby, not that there were many, wouldn’t hear the screams. There is another tree. In front of the tree there’s a sign, simple enough, which states that this is the tree against which soldiers used to beat babies heads before throwing them in a pile. The idea of anyone holding a baby by the ankle and swinging into a tree-trunk disgusts me.

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I’m not sure what’s worse, the tree or the skulls. Inside the large white stupa, which rises serenely from the otherwise flat site, are the remains and skulls of most of the victims who have been released from the ground so far. A moving memorial, twelve storeys of shelves encased in glass, each containing more human skulls than I’d like to count. It is clinically, logically separated into age groups, one side of the tower for the over 40s, one side for 25 to forty, one for 15 to 20 and the other for younger victims again (I think I’ve remembered that fairly accurately). Naturally the skulls vary in size, and different bits are missing or collapsed depending on how they were killed; most people were not shot but rather clubbed to death with something, to conserve ammunition. The former heads then each sport several coloured spots, indicating gender of the victim and the instrument used to kill them, some of which have been excavated and displayed for good measure. It’s a memorial I moved around quickly, avoiding the gaping gazes of the once-human eye sockets.

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I’ll also briefly mention the prison here, but only because I don’t want to write a full separate post on it. S 21, Phnom Peng is another one of the most harrowing memorial sites I have ever been to. Prison rooms with shackles still visible, hard metal surfaces and weapons fully displayed and eerie deep brown stains which will never be able to be scrubbed clean, just due to the sheer amount of blood that soaked these floors. Here prisoners were tortured, starved and kept in conditions which are still on display today and, for obvious reasons, of which I did not take photographs. The Khmer Rouge didn’t leave many survivors but the stories you can read tell of lying in piles with no light or fresh air for countless days until a guard opened a small window and sprayed some ‘shower’ water through. Electric cables were a well-used instrument of torture here. It has an air of being untouched or unchanged since use, although the more disturbing evidence is doubtless long gone, the long concrete corridors with the dark and torturously small cells are very much intact and now also house a myriad of prisoner mug shots. Political prisoners, conscientious objectors, journalists and countless innocent people were detained unlawfully here and you can still feel them. But you can feel a sense of memorial too; two survivors are here most days, selling their books, which contain their full stories, and other charity publications. Both of them are smiling old men, weathered and wrinkled but otherwise without an obvious trace of their history on their faces, as one of them dozes in the shade and the other takes a photo with a tourist. The old man who was napping wakes as we leave and clasps both his hands together before him, bowing his head to each of us in the traditional Cambodian way; it can be a greeting, an expression of thanks and a sort of blessing.

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Of two things I am pretty certain. I do not know enough about the 1975 Cambodian genocide and I hope to never again walk on bones.

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