We visit the killing fields outside Phnom Penh

We just got back from a tour of the Killing Fields and before that we spent the morning in the Cambodia Genocide Museum. Needless to say, it’s been a tough day. Right now, all four of us are slouched into the couch of our flat, quietly reading and writing. There really isn’t much to say. We are physically and emotionally drained and after a day like this, words, ideas, even thinking itself, just seems so useless.

Our flat is on the same block as the Genocide Museum so after our breakfast and coffee we spent two hours there. The Genocide Museum is the site of the notorious S-21 complex—a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison and torture center for people who they perceived to be enemies of the state but who were, by and large, just ordinary people living ordinary lives.

One of the cell blocks of the S21 compound–the large photo is shows the four children who made it out of there alive.
One of the cells where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were held
Barbed wire placed outside the cell blocks so prisoners could not escape

Our tour guide was a young Cambodian woman who led us through the rooms where people were electrocuted, shackled and maimed, and about halfway through the tour she started telling us about her mother who was living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and, within hours, force marched the entire civilian population of the city from their homes and into the country side where they were either executed or forced to work in labor camps. The Khmer Rouge targeted urban populations because that’s where the intellectuals were—the doctors, professors and lawyers whose soft hands and white collar professional positions made them enemies of the Khmer Rouge and who were rounded up and killed.

1975 was not that long ago—I was 10 years old–so just about anyone you talk to here in Phnom Penh can tell you a story about a family member who was force marched out the city on that date. Some of them survived and made it back, many didn’t. In fact, over the course of four years 40 percent of Cambodian society was either executed or died from starvation, untreated disease or, in some cases, simply losing hope in life. So, part of the reason Cambodia is struggling today is because it lost, not just nearly half of its population, but the part of its population that held nation and community building talents. Imagine losing an entire generation of our doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, chemists and biologists.


Signage outside one of the cell blocks. Probably the most appropriate signage I’ve ever seen.

In the Genocide museum I stared for what seemed like minutes at walls filled with candid, headshot photographs of the victims as well as the members of the Khmer Rouge who committed the atrocities. We have these photos because the Khmer Rouge, like many other fascist dictatorships, kept copious records of their own as well as their enemies.  In 1975, many of victims as well as Khmer Rouge soldiers were my age or just a little bit older. Beautiful, young people who should have been sitting in cafes, reading Camus and Hesse, studying for exams, flirting, racing their scooters through these narrow streets, traveling the world, living their lives. Instead, they were either forced to join an army run by a genocidal mass murderer or, worse, tortured and summarily executed by their own country men and women.

We left the Genocide Museum, ate some Khmer food, and then got in a taxi and set out to see the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek. After a 30-minute drive down Street 217 we made a left-hand turn onto what seemed an ordinary residential street, and in less than two minutes we pulled into an ordinary parking lot, stepped out of the car, walked through a large, ordinary-looking gate, paid our fee, were handed audio recorders and headphones and sent on our way to hear about the very extraordinary things that happened here because it was in this compound where the Khmer Rouge executed about 20,000 ordinary people in the most brutal manner over the course of their four-year reign of terror of this country from 1975-1979.

In a word, what happened here is simply beyond human reason so all I can really do here is describe what I saw and learned and how it made me feel.

Since everyone is issued a headset and headphones, the first thing I noticed as I started walking on the path that lead me around the compound was how quiet it was. Part of that was because there were no tour guides explaining what happened here. It’s just a bunch of stunned people stumbling from one sad site to the next with blank, dazed expressions plastered on their faces. The oppressive heat, combined with horrific stories you are hearing about mass murder and complete lack concern for human life leaves everyone numb. If I wasn’t staring in wonder at the mass graves and the glass boxes filled with bones or articles of clothing that had been left behind by the executed, I was looking off into the distance, or down at my shoes, trying as best as I could to not weep.

Here’s a photo of a mass grave on the left and a close up of the thousands of bracelets visitors have left behind:

At Choeng Ek, the earth itself seems to still be sick from what happened there. Every so often after a heavy rain, it wretches up bones and clothing from the victims.

Victims’ clothing washed up from rains. Recently-discovered bone on top of glass case

The Cambodian government has done the best it can, I guess, with making this place peaceful and a place of meditation and reflection, despite that, though, I found it to be hot, harsh and unsettling. On the backside of the site is a vine-choked lake surrounded by invasive grasses and unpleasant-looking trees. A rough gravel path leads you around the lake and the narrator of the audio tape asks you listen to stories of survivors and meditate on the dead as you walk through the ‘tranquil’ site. I found it neither tranquil nor a place that encouraged peace.


There is a stupa on the grounds (in fact, it’s the first thing you see when you walk through the gates) that the Cambodian government erected in the early 1990s to memorialize the people who died here. In a clear reaction against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s banning of religious practice in the country the stupa combines elements of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. If you look at the photo of the stupa below, you’ll see the figure of Garuda—the eagle who Vishnu rides upon in the Hindu tradition—and above that, you can see depictions of Naga, snake-like beings who protected Siddhartha after he found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. As you get closer to the stupa and gaze through the glass paneling you see 5,000 skulls from the people who died on this site staring back at you.  That said, this is not Gettysburg or Vietnam War Memorial, thoughtfully and aesthetically planned to memorialize the dead.

You might be thinking how the children did with all this. To this point, I’m honestly not sure. We spent a good part of yesterday preparing them for what we were going to witness and hear about today. At the Genocide Museum, they don’t hold anything back—there are graphic photos of the victims displayed throughout and even the empty cells, where the Khmer Rouge shackled and tortured people conjure up horrific feelings. It’s all very close in there and I think this was the most difficult part for the kids. Choeng Ek is, of course, outdoors and you can move along the paths as you like, or sit down on the bench if you like, so I think that made it easier for the kids. Atticus, who is naturally sensitive to injustice, was off by himself most of the time, quietly shuffling down the paths or sitting on a bench as he listened to the audio guide.  He keeps asking me who the good guys were-“Were the Vietnamese the good guys, Dad?” he hopefully asks, wanting this to be a Manichean struggle, like in Harry Potter.  At a certain point I just said to him, “Son, there are no good guys in this story.” Eleanor, who bobs on the surface of life a bit more than Atticus, seemed a little less affected by it all, but, like I said, I can’t really tell at this point. At one point our guide in the Genocide Museum, sensing the the children’s anxiety about the photographs of people being tortured, asked us if we wanted to take the kids out to the courtyard for a break.  As I was finishing this post later in the day, Eleanor began expressing anxieties about what she saw:  those bad men aren’t going to come and get us, are they mom? There may be nightmares tonight. Hers and mine.

When I walked back out the gates toward the taxi, I looked down at my own shadow, happy to see it there and sorrowful for all the people who lost their lives on those grounds.

I’m curious, though, how you folks who are reading this post feel about this: should we have taken the kids there? Was it irresponsible to have them confront all this unmitigated suffering? What would you have done if you were here with your children?





13 thoughts on “We visit the killing fields outside Phnom Penh

  1. I think it might have been irresponsible not to go. You are such a close family, and it’s important to know that things like this have happened and can happen again if people like you, Eric, don’t honor the past and work towards a more just future.

  2. I believe wholeheartedly that yes, you were right to bring them, for all the obvious reasons but also because you guys are very attentive to them and will honor their questions and fears. More broadly I want to thank you for this beautiful post. Tim and I were talking about how moving it was to read this. What a tender, disturbing, well-written account.

  3. There are no easy, pat answers to your questions, Eric. No good guys (certainly not the Vietnamese), as you say, no happy endings, no way to gloss over the colossal trauma inflicted by the KR or give it any moral proportion that’s not a cartoon. Encourage your kids to express their feelings. I’ve learned from Coles’ work on children in crisis that kids are often surprisingly resilient, resourceful, and remarkably forgiving, especially when adults get out of their way. Maybe we can learn something from them. Their sense of security, safety, and feelings of being loved are most certainly not at risk. They are too young to understand the complex purpose and the processes of national reconciliation at play in the museum. So let them talk. Listen to them.

    1. This is Fred, correct? Hi Fred. I’d love to talk with you sometime about this. We are still in Cambodia and we find ourselves awed everyday. I’d love to hear your stories. Thank you.

  4. This is such a good question, and I’m sure I don’t have the right answer, but the response that resonates with me is that kids are resilient and that perhaps we can learn something from them. Thanks for sharing.

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