There are some places in the world that represent the horrific events of history so vividly, I leave them in awe equally as much as in sadness or anger. As a person of Jewish descent, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center in Jerusalem and the Dachau concentration camp outside of Germany come to mind. More recently, the killing fields (Choeung Ek) and S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia have joined that list.
Eerie Feeling of the Killing Fields
Walking into the killing fields, I notice the land itself is quite pretty. Parts of it still house an orchard, and green trees and plants fill the area. The strong scent of pollen, not a pleasant smell to me, more like that of a rotting magnolia flower, is ever present. I know it cannot be, but my thoughts automatically steer me to believing it is the smell of 20,000 decomposed bodies from 30 years prior.
It’s silent. Hundreds of people are walking the grounds, but nobody is talking above a whisper. In fact, most people don’t talk at all. My English audio guide headphones drown out everything except the information and anecdotes told by the Cambodian narrator. He tells stories of individual victims, families, and executioners sprinkled throughout the fact-based information about each grave site and the main locations.
Disturbing Images and Audio Guide Excerpts
Walking along the narrow paths, I see a femur jutting out of the hard dirt. It is common for the rains to wash up bones and teeth regularly the audio guide mentions. Chilling. However, the two parts of the tour that really shake me are the Killing Tree and the Magic Tree.
The Killing Tree
Unknowingly, I reach the mass grave for women and children. A small fenced off rectangle, maybe 8 feet by 15 feet, has thousands of bracelets ad trinkets tied along it and thrown in the middle as tribute. As the audio guide finishes talking about what happened to these victims, I think I am through the tough part.
But then, it draws my attention to the tree right next to the grave. The Killing Tree. The Khmer Rouge had a policy of killing everyone in a family that was found guilty of being an enemy in order to avoid revenge down the road. In the most gruesome account I think I have ever heard of – in history, movies, Game of Thrones, or anything – the guide describes how babies and children were held by the ankles and swung into the tree to be “smashed”. I knew the Khmer Rouge didn’t use guns in the killing fields, but this blindsides me completely.
The Magic Tree
Directly after passing the Killing Tree, the audio guide stops me at another tree called the Magic Tree. It’s called the Magic Tree because the Khmer Rouge hung an amplification device on it playing music to drown out the screams of the victims. I don’t understand the name.
The audio guide plays a sample of what it must have sounded like for victims: horribly corny, happy music and announcements blaring from a crackly 1970’s a amplifier mixed with the powerful drone of a gas-powered generator. If you ever give it a listen, I think you will agree it is much more frightening than creepy carnival music.
Even though I am starving, I don’t touch the Oreos nestled in my backpack. Not because I am sick or my stomach is weak from the tour, but because it just seems wrong to have a snack like that in a place like this.
Finally Understanding the Scale of the Killing Fields
Built just to the side of the actual mass grave sites, the Choeung Ek monument displays a portion (5,000) of the skulls and weapons found at the killing fields. Even though the normal reaction to this monument is to realize how high the number of victims was, I have a different reaction.
For some reason, when I learned about the Khmer Rouge in high school, I thought the killing fields held millions of victims. It wasn’t until I learned in Cambodia that there were hundreds of different killing fields throughout the country. Choeung Ek, this one, was the largest with around 20,000 victims. The land is smaller than I imagined. Trucks dropped off prisoners less than 100 feet from the actual killing areas.
The only thing I think about walking away from the tour is that this is only one mass killing area in the country. There are hundreds of others that do not get visited, do not get excavated, and may never even be recognized.
The majority of victims at Choeung Ek were first held prisoner at Tuol Sleng a.k.a. S-21. Look for more about S-21 in my next post coming soon.
You can subscribe to my blog here and be sure to follow me on social media