The rule of Pol Pot (1975-1979) and the Khmer Rouge was responsible for two million deaths in Cambodia out of a population of seven million. A combination of dissident executions, forced labor, disease, and starvation were the main causes.
Choeung Ek is about 15 miles from Phnom Penh. Here, an estimated 17,000 Cambodians were executed by the Khmer Rouge. The first thing I noticed while visiting the “Killing Fields” was that it was eerily silent. It had the same feel as when I visited Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp in Austria.
Choeung Ek was different though in many ways. The most striking part of the site is that it is mainly left in tact from when the Khmer Rouge fled. Bones, and teeth are still coming up from the ground when it rains. Clothes from the victims can be seen peaking up from the dry, red, dirt. I felt very tentative when walking not to step on any of the remains.
When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia near the end of the Vietnam War they saw little opposition, partly because they were Cambodian. The main goal was to eliminate “class” and begin an agrarian society. On the plane, I read a very interesting book written by Dith Pran, titled, Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. It chronicles 29 different memoirs by survivors who now live in the United States, Canada, or Europe. Most of the stories are similar in overall structure.
When the Khmer Rouge stormed into the capital of Phnom Penh, they told the locals that the U.S. was going to bomb the city so they had to evacuate immediately. Although there was some resistance, most of the urban residents obliged to the request. They were told not to bring anything with them since they could return in three days. Little did they know they would probably never come back.
They were marched into the countryside and split up based on age and gender, to separate farming camps. The treatment was horrible. The soldiers dressed in black, with red and white bandannas, constantly harassed the “New People”. New People were those who came from cities, probably educated, and therefore enemies of the Khmer Rouge. “Old People” were those who had been farming the hot and humid rice paddies of Cambodia for generations.
Executions could happen for any reason. Most notably teachers, former Cambodian Army personal, and medical doctors. Wearing glasses was also grounds for execution because it showed that the person was probably literate.
One of the saddest stories from the site is the big, old, Chankiri Tree, otherwise known as the “Killing Tree”. Since bullets were in high demand, soldiers would take children by the feet and swing them into the tree to kill them. Often, the Khmer Rouge soldiers would laugh while killing the children. Not laughing, might be a sign of showing sympathy, and result in questioning of your own loyalty to the party.