On our way from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a slight deviation on the high way took us to the ‘Killing Fields’ of Phnom Penh.
Periodically, humanity has been an unfortunate witness to the darkest, most incomprehensible side of human behaviour – ‘Genocide’. Some humans have an inane ability to kill and murder their own kind without any reason, remorse or regret. Due to a combination of ill fated circumstances, Cambodia came under the rule of ‘Khmer Rouge’ the followers of the Communist party of Kampuchea led by ‘Pol Pot’ - a despotic dictator. They established their absolute control in Cambodia from 17 April1975 to 7 January 1979.
Under Pol Pot, the state controlled all aspects of a person’s life. Once in power, he began a radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia. All foreigners were thus expelled. Newspapers and television stations were shut down, radios and bicycles confiscated, and mail and telephone usage curtailed. Money was forbidden. All businesses were shut, religion banned, education halted, health care eliminated, and parental authority revoked. Thus Cambodia was sealed off from the outside world. Government made urban dwellers move to the countryside to work in ‘Collective Farms’ and on forced labour camps projects. Citizens were to be turned into traditional rural peasants, referred to as ‘Old People’. Urban workers and intelligentsia and the elite were viewed as "New People" and easily expendable.
The slightest sign of dissent meant execution by the Khmer Rouge.
The Pol Pot regime established 341 ‘Killing Fields’ all over Cambodia. ‘Choeung Ek’ about 17 kilometers South of Phnom Penh is one such place.17,000 people were killed in this place.Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered here after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former political prisoners.
A very simple and elegant ‘Stupa’ has been erected on the site to pay homage to the departed souls. The genocide in Cambodia is unique. Out of a population of approximately 8 million, about 3 million Cambodians were systematically exterminated, starved, or worked to death during this period.
As one enters this ‘hell on earth’ you are surrounded by an eerie silence and grim faces of tourists listening to the audio commentary.An audio tour helps you go around the killing field and the running commentary totally unnerves even the hardest of humans. At the bloody end of it all you are left with a lot of questions
· Has the human race evolved at all?
· How can we kill our own kind?
· Are humans so weak minded that they can follow such a despotic and deranged leader without question?
· What was the rest of the world doing when 3 million people were being massacred?
· Do countries only interfere when their own interests are threatened?
Pol Pot grew old and played with his grandchildren. He died in 1998 at the age of 73 without ever being brought to justice.
The trucks carrying political prisoners would arrive in this camp and they were executed under cover of night. Chemical powder such as DDT was liberally spread on the bodies to prevent a stench. The authorities would play loud martial music and make speeches during the entire period of execution to muffle and dampen the desperate cries of the victims reaching the nearby villages. Children were held by their legs and smashed against the trunk of a ‘killing’ tree.
Figure 1- Designed in the style of a Buddhist stupa, the Choeung Ek memorial has glass sides, and is comprised of multiple layers of human skulls.The memorial was built in 1988. Totaling 5,000 of those executed at the site, the skulls are a harsh reminder of a genocide that took place only 40 years ago. The memorial is particularly disturbing upon closer examination of the skulls, many of which bear marks of the trauma they suffered before their execution.
Figure 2 – The centre column houses over 8000 skulls, arranged at different levels based on sex and age group. These are clearly visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa.
Figure 3 – The memorial has a number of boards explaining the brutality – how they were brought to the killing fields, where they stayed, how they were executed, what cunning tricks were played on the victims and so on.
Figure 4 – Truck stop details
Figure 5 – Scores of victims were packed like sardines in small unventilated and dark sheds prior to their execution.
Figure 6 – The filled is full of various types of graves – some for women, different graves for old people, grave with bodies without head and so on.
Figure 7 – The most chilling and barbaric act against humanity. This is tree trunk on which children’s head was banged to kill. Colorful rubber bands are pinned on to the trunk to express deep sorrow and grief. A sense of helplessness envelopes and pins you to the ground.
We departed from the ‘Killing Field’ deeply hurt with every belief shaken from its roots. It’s impossible to believe that few fellow humans could have committed such monstrous atrocities.
The only saving grace from their gut- wrenchingly ghastly past - they have managed to retain their gentleness, courtesy and warmth towards their fellowman - Unfathomable.