The Killing Fields, Cambodia – March 9, 2000
**Warning: Killing Fields in this installment, don’t
read if you are sensitive**
A van showed up to drive us to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 15 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh. There wasn’t enough space for everyone, so Stuart, Julia, Lochie and I went on the backs of motorbikes, helmetless (sorry, Mom) and loving it in the brutal heat. Mimicking the locals, Stuart and Lochie wore scarves like bandits, protecting their noses and mouths from the dust of the road.
These particular Killing Fields are the ones made famous in the movie, but there are many similar Killing Fields all over Cambodia. The sign at the entrance was in French but it said something like, “Memorial of Genocide.”
The first structure inside the entrance is a 7-level memorial stupa, full of skulls. The skulls are arranged by sex, age, and nationality. There is a big space where the seven or eight American skulls were – they have been returned to their families at the behest of the US government.
We walked through the site, following our Cambodian guide. The mass graves of nearly 9,000 people were still strewn with pieces of clothing and bits of teeth and the Cambodian people have decided to leave it that way.
We left the Killing Fields in silence, passing cheerful souvenir salespeople on the way to our transport. “T-shirt, madam?” they called out after me. Yeah, right. “My friend went to the Killing Fields and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” I don’t think so.
The moto drivers got us to the Tuol Sleng Museum well before the van so we had plenty of time to study the sign at the entrance.
The Tuol Sleng Museum is a former high school that became Security Prison 21 (S-21) in 1976. It was one of the Khmer Rouge’s “interrogation and extermination centers,” where “anti-Angkar elements” were held. “Anti-Angkar elements,” as is well-known now, included anyone with an intellectual or authoritative bent – ministers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, diplomats etc. People could be imprisoned and exterminated for wearing eyeglasses, because this identified them as the intellectual or wealthy elite. All this was happening while I was having fictional conversations with Betsy Ross in my fourth grade Bicentennial pageant.
The rest of the group caught up with us as we began our grim tour. The first room was a small cell, containing a single metal bedframe, a metal post, and a photo. The photo showed an individual being tortured on the metal bedframe, while manacled to the post. The image was graphic – the Khmer Rouge had explicitly documented each atrocity.
Lochie tapped me and pointed up. The ceiling had specks of dried blood on it.
We lost a lot of our group after that. About half dropped off, either taking less than the tour or just sitting down in the sun and refusing to continue.
I continued on, feeling very sick but determined to force myself through the entire gruesome spectacle.
We saw more torture cells and the prison cells. And finally, we got to the section of hundreds of grim black-and-white photos of individuals who had been first tortured at S-21 and then bludgeoned to death in the Killing Fields. By now, only about six of our group remained but we had been joined by at least as many strangers who had latched on, anxious to have their questions answered in vain attempts to understand what had happened.
The final room had a bust of Pol Pot. It had been defaced, as had every image of him throughout the prison. Pol Pot, short for Political Potential, made the news a few years ago by being captured and then dying before he could be brought to trial. He was, of course, the maniac in charge of the Khmer Rouge. He was also the leader with the promise – he’d led the
glorious revolution and was welcomed as a hero. He promised a Maoist, agrarian society where a peasant could be the equal of a lawyer. But clearly, something in his brain was very wrong and he surrounded himself with 14-year-old boys with rifles and made them execute their parents.
Meanwhile, the Western world was still smarting with isolationism in the post-Vietnam War era. They turned a blind eye to the genocide, leaving it to Vietnam to invade Cambodia when Pol Pot got too cocky and started to spill over their border.
Our tour finished and I walked up to Tom from Missouri, waiting by the exit.
“We could’ve missed this altogether, don’t you think? It was kind of depressing,” he said, just before I jumped down his throat.
Lochie and I hired a couple of motorbike drivers for the afternoon for the very reasonable fee of a dollar an hour. They dropped us off first at the FCC, which, according to Lonely Planet is “the best place to have that splash-out meal.” We did just that and dropped over ten dollars each before scooting off on our motos to the Tuol Tom Pong Market.
Lochie and I had manicures and pedicures for a dollar each. We were walking through the aisles of the dark, dirty market when we came across a tiny wooden stall on a raised platform. Two young women sat there, rocking a baby behind a glass case of fingernail polish. We both sat on tiny footstools while the women labored over our extremities. Eventually the baby woke up and screamed and Mom had to leave my fingernails for a bit to placate her child. The baby wore only a shirt and nothing on its bottom, as is common in many developing countries.
Our last stop of the day was the NCDP Handicrafts store, run by the National Centre for Disabled Persons. I bought a mailing tube, presumably made locally. We were visiting a school in Siem Reap and were going there full of school supplies for the kiddies and the cherry on top was a long, rolled-up map of the world so that tourists could point out their home countries.