Cambodia: The Killing FieldsFriday, March 01, 2013
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
- George Santayana
With heavy hearts, we paid our respects at Choeung Ek, a place on the outskirts of Phnom Penh that remains in infamy as one of the sites of the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields. During the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1974-1979, over one million people were executed as a result of "social engineering." City folk, intellectuals, capitalists, monks, poets, celebrities—all were considered tainted by the West and singled out to be eliminated. Entire families were murdered, including children and infants, because the Khmer Rouge wanted to remove the possibility of any offspring taking revenge in the future. This maxim they operated by is a chilling look into the psyche of the Khmer Rouge: Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.
Choeung Ek stands today as a memorial to the victims of this tragedy, and as a way to educate the rest of the world on the atrocities that took place here. We walked through the site while listening to an audio tour that recounted, with stark honesty, the painful details of what went on here. We saw numerous open pits, more often than not with stray bones and tattered fabric still poking out of the soil—these were the mass graves from which numerous bodies were exhumed, and from which human remains still surface after a heavy rainfall. Glass displays hold piles of bones and clothes recovered from the graves. I could hardly hold back my tears at the sight of a tiny pair of shorts in the display case, not wanting to think about the fate of the child who once wore them. In this place of such pain, there is none more heartbreaking than The Killing Tree, where far too many innocent children and infants were slaughtered in keeping with the Khmer Rouge maxim: To kill the grass, one must dig up even the roots.
A Buddhist stupa stands in the middle of Choeung Ek, holding within it piles upon piles of human skulls recovered from the Killing Fields. Within the stupa, one can make an offering and say a prayer for the repose of the numerous souls that perished here.
The Cambodian government encourages tourists to visit Choeung Ek, in the hope that awareness will prevent such horrors from taking place again. While facing the painful past of Choeung Ek is difficult, seeing how Cambodia has rebuilt from such a horrific past brings me hope that the human spirit is a resilient one, and that ultimately, good triumphs over even the most unimaginable evil.