Ten miles outside of Phnom Penh lies Choeng Ek, also known as the Killing Fields. Today it’s a memorial commemorating the suffering and lives lost under the Khmer Rouge. Yesterday, it was the place where men, women and children were brought by the truckload before being executed and dumped in mass graves in the ground.
I was overcome with such emotion walking the grassy fields of a place where the bodies of thousands of victims lay. A sign marks the spot where the truck arrived, full of blindfolded prisoners. A sign marks the spot where more than 450 bodies were found in a mass grave. No sign is needed to mark the spot where piles of children’s clothing were found. The miniature t-shirts and pants tell the story.
One memory that I can’t get out of my mind is the site of the ‘killing tree,’ against which young babies were swung and skulls smashed. They were then dumped in the hole in the ground that stands before it.
They’ve built a Buddhist pagoda at the center of the memorial to house the thousands of skulls uncovered here. Most of the skulls have a crack down the middle or dents in the side. Prison guards rarely wasted a bullet on these prisoners and often beat them to death instead.
We walked in silence around the perimeter of the grounds, lined with a wire fence and children begging for small change. Just feet away from us lied the unearthed mass graves of countless others. I began to wonder where was the talk of this genocide in my history lessons? Why don’t more Americans know more about what went on here – that three million people died in Cambodia and the United States, in a roundabout way, was involved in the crisis that lead to the Khmer Rouge takeover? Why hasn’t more been done to bring the perpetrators to justice? Many still walk freely. Only now are some finally being prosecuted for their horrific crimes against humanity.
I couldn’t help but leave The Killing Fields silent, solemn and deeply-affected by images that will stay with me forever.