Throughout the course of history, people have done horrible things to other people.
We have invaded, pillaged, destroyed, and claimed other lands. We have raped, tortured, enslaved, and killed other people. For as long as we have been on the earth, humans have been doing terrible things to one another. No country or race or class is innocent if you look back in the history books.
But it's one thing to read about the unspeakable cruelty humans are capable of in books.
It's another entirely to be confronted by it face to face.
It's an eerie feeling, walking over graves. Cemeteries always sort of creep me out because of that.
But the feeling changes to abject horror and disgust when the graves turn into mass graves, and you begin to learn about how people came to find themselves in them.
Before my trip to Cambodia, I knew a little bit about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and the genocide and associated starvation that claimed the lives of roughly 3 million people between the years of 1975 and 1979. But simply knowing that more than 1/3 of Cambodia's population died in the span of 4 years didn't mean I was prepared to be confronted by it.
Genocide is never a comfortable topic; never something that we WANT to be confronted by. But, sometimes I think we need to be.
And a visit to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek is certainly confronting.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, upwards of 20,000 people lost their lives at this site alone. At one time, Choeung Ek was a quiet Chinese cemetery. Today, it is a reminder of the harsh reality of genocide.
Throughout Cambodia, there are at least 343 of these “killing fields.” Some were actual fields. Others were caves or orchards or riverbanks — anything out of the way that would make a suitable site for systematic slaughter.
Ol' Pol Pot was a messed up ruler — as most rulers who incite genocide tend to be. He was so obsessed with the idea that his people would revolt against him that he decided getting rid of them was a better option than letting them potentially decide they would be better off without him. Over the span of 4 years, the Khmer Rouge gathered up millions of people — usually educated ones — and sent them to “New Houses” or “Training Centers.”
These of course were just code names for killing fields or facilities where the people would be beaten to death or near-death with iron bars or wooden clubs (because their lives were not worth the cost of bullets) and then shoved into mass graves. Some of them were still alive when they were thrown in.
Women would watch their babies be beaten against trees, and then would be raped to within inches of their lives before being thrown into the pits, too.
All because one man was afraid of his own people.
Our guide for the day — who lived through this horror — explained how the “educated” people were tracked down. Doctors, teachers, lawyers and anyone in a profession that obviously required an education were the first people targeted. Then it was people who wore glasses (since they could probably read), people who spoke more than one language, and people who had smooth hands or pale skin (since they probably didn't work out in the fields). If that sounds crazy to you, it's because it was.
Roughly 1.5 million people were sentenced to death this way.
But millions more died of starvation during the same period. Along with hunting down educated people, the Khmer Rouge emptied cities and sent people to work in the fields at glorified slave labor camps. There was never enough food, and people suffered an incredible amount. Our guide lost his father as well as 3 siblings to starvation during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and remembers eating everything from bugs to dirt in order to stay alive.
The true horror? Most Cambodians over the age of 40 alive today can tell similar stories.
Walking through Choeung Ek was like walking through a nightmare. Sure, it was sunny. But then our guide would point out bones poking up out of the dirt, or perhaps a few human teeth just lying in the grass. Each time it rains here, more things — bones, teeth, bits of clothing — are exposed. There are piles of these things everywhere, like grotesque memorials to the dead.
And then there's the gigantic, ornate stupa, filled with the bones of about 8,000 people whose bodies were exhumed from mass graves at this site a few decades ago. So many bones. So many lives lost for no good reason.
The bodies still in the earth at this particular killing field are mostly those of political prisoners, many of which were held at the Tuol Sleng prison and detention center in Phnom Penh.
This prison — along with many others like it — were known as “Re-education Centers” during the Khmer Rouge era. Really, though, they were just torture facilities. Prisoners (AKA suspected educated people) would be kept here in appalling conditions and interrogated regularly. The goal? To get them to name names — their family members, people they worked with, etc. Their captors would promise their release and a new life at a “New House” if they talked. Of course, once they did (or if they didn't), they were just sent to the killing fields.
Visiting Tuol Sleng (which literally translates to the “poison hill”) was no less confronting than visiting the killing fields. It was important, though, to understanding how the genocide was carried out — and how the aftermath still affects people in Cambodia today.
At Tuol Sleng, two thin and bent old men can often be found selling books — autobiographies — that describe their time at Tuol Sleng and how they were able to survive. These men are given nothing by the government; after being tortured and starved for years, they now rely on visitors taking pity on them to make a living.
It's just one hint at the state of Cambodia's current political landscape that our guide pointed out to us. He also pointed out that, even though Pol Pot was eventually chased from power, many Khmer Rouge soldiers and officers still hold positions in Cambodia's government today. Add to this the fact that an entire generation of educated people (not to mention their families) was wiped out, and it makes for a fairly scary state of affairs today in Cambodia.
As we entered Tuol Sleng, our guide told us that we could ask questions during the tour, but instructed us to refrain from asking anything about politics.
“There are ears in the walls here,” he said.
We all learn about the Holocaust in school; about how horrible and evil it was. But I don't remember learning nearly as much about the Cambodian genocide. By all accounts, it was just as brutal as the Holocaust; millions of people were put to death on orders from one crazy man. A whole generation was wiped out. And it happened more recently than WWII — so recently that there are still many survivors of the Khmer Rouge years alive in Cambodia today.
So why don't more people know about it?
The answer, of course, is complex. For starters, the U.S. actually supported Pol Pot for quite a long time because, even though he was crazy and there were rumors that he was committing terrible crimes against his own people, he was very anti-Vietnam. And this was at a time when the U.S. was fighting a war with Vietnam and looking for allies.
It's disgusting, really, to think that genocide could ever be supported. But it's actually happened more times than most people realize.
And it will probably continue to happen unless we educate ourselves better.
Visits to places like the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng are not pleasant; being confronted by this type of human cruelty is never a comfortable thing. But I think it's SO important to be aware of why and how and when this happened, so that we might be able to open our eyes to similar things happening in the future and speak up about them.
Educate yourself, even if it means subjecting yourself to uncomfortable truths every once in a while.
Heading to Phnom Penh and interested in visiting these sites to learn more about them? Consider booking a tour with a company like Urban Adventures. Their Phnom Penh's Past tour is essentially what I wrote about here.
Would you visit “dark” places like this in Cambodia?
*Note: I visited these sites as part of a complimentary tour of Vietnam and Cambodia with Intrepid Travel. I am SO glad that this half-day tour was included during our time in Cambodia, because you really can't understand Cambodia without visiting these places, sad and disturbing as they are.
If you're interested in the Cambodia portion of this same trip, check it out here.