Between 1975 and 1979, over a span of fewer than four years, 3 million out of a population of 7 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge. An astounding number—nearly half the population. But this number discounts those killed from overwork, from starvation, from disease, from long marches. The true number of those lost is much higher.
I knew the basics about the Khmer Rouge—communist authoritarian regime that killed a lot of people. But until I came to Cambodia, I admit I didn’t know much.
|Bones collected on the side of the path.|
|Clothing of the victims emerging from the ground.|
Over half the population was wiped out. Today, Cambodia is a very young population—very few people over 40. They lost an entire generation. I’ve seen a lot of people with missing limbs, likely taken off from landmines. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, one of the biggest killers of Cambodians was landmines.
I’ve been to concentration camps in Germany, to Schindler’s factory in Poland, but neither of those trips left the same impression on me as the killing fields in Cambodia. The country is littered with mass graves, some yet to be discovered. Outside Phnom Penh is Choeung Ek killing field where mass graves containing the remains of 8,895 people were found—some headless. One mass grave full of babies. One of women and children. There's a tree there against which they swung babies to kill them.
The impact isn’t from the sheer number of bodies found. It isn’t from the monument that acts as a resting place for the exhumed bodies—skulls, bones, on display. The impact comes from the fact that the field continues to be littered with bones, with bits of cloth, that the rains and erosion have pushed up. As you walk, you have to look down to make sure you’re not stepping on bones. Brightly colored clothing is partially visible. I was literally dodging the dead. There were even bones lodged in tree roots.
Political prisoners were sent from a prison in downtown Phnom Penh, a complex that was once used as an elementary school. Today, you can visit the elementary school and see the mugshots of the prisoners.
|Mugshots found in S-21, the elementary school turned prison complex.|
After weeks of torture, victims were sent to the killing fields for immediate death. They were not shot—they were not worth the bullets. Instead, their heads were bashed in, their necks broken, their necks slit with palm leaves. They were made to dig their own graves. Those who survived the beating either suffocated to death in the pit or died when the Rouge poured chemicals on the bodies—to get rid of the stench and to kill off anyone who may have survived. They left no survivors.
Despite all of this, despite the fact Cambodia remains a poor country, Cambodians are happy, smiling, welcoming. I don’t feel hostility as a tourist, as an American (the US supported the KR, a Chinese-supported commie party, as a counterbalance to the Soviet-supported Vietnamese commies. If you play the communists against themselves, the ideology will not spread). People come to talk to you. They offer you their wares at the tourist shops, at the stalls, but if you say no thank you they drop it. No hassling, not pushy.
Today, the prime minister is a former KR official. The Cambodians have sought the path of reconciliation—if you killed my father, what will killing your father do? Will it bring peace? Or eternal war? As would be expected, hard feelings remain. Our tour guide who took us through the complexes told us how the regime killed his father, tore apart his family. After Pol Pot, the leader of the KR regime, died, our guide went to the site where his body was cremated. He said he wanted to piss--he said it with anger, with pain, with sadness, with resignation. Coming from a religious man, I could feel this meant a lot. Yet he could not, because the site was littered with offerings--a sign that to this day, there are those in the country who still support the Khmer Rouge.