Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Cambodia

The Mass Grave Site at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

The Mass Grave Site at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

It took me over a year to get around to writing this. Even now it creates a lump in my throat and makes me feel physically sickened. I am writing about a place, about 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh that, when I was in high school, was a non-descript fruit orchard among the many others in the countryside surrounding the capitol. Today many of the trees are gone and what is left is a dusty field, some craters in the ground, a Buddhist stupa and: pieces of torn clothing and fragments of human bone. There is also, a number of people, of many nationalities, walking around with somber, almost shell-shocked, looks on their faces; some with tears in their eyes; asking the unanswerable question; why? Birdsong and the sounds of cicadas fill the air, but they feel vulgar and out of place here now.

Fragments of Bone and Clothing at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Fragments of Bone and Clothing at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

In the spring of 1975 this orchard, on the outskirts of the city formerly known as “The Pearl of Asia”, was a lovely place where warm breezes stirred the air and children played among the trees and ponds. Then the trucks started to arrive. They were driven by brainwashed children, now soldiers in the army of the Khmer Rouge and filled with broken prisoners from S-21 prison, or Tuol Sleng; recently known as Chao Ponhea Yat High School. They were blindfolded and bound, but compliant because, after weeks of confinement in a place of unimaginable horror, they had been told they were going to be taken “home”.

Fragments of Bone and Clothing at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Fragments of Bone and Clothing at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Because the grounds of Chao Ponhea Yat High School had been filled with the graves of people whose “crimes” included being educated or even knowing how to read, “home” for these prisoners was this orchard, now repurposed as the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. They were removed from the trucks – while loud patriotic music blared in the background to mask what was happening – escorted to the pits, made to kneel down and murdered by their fellow citizens, with farm implements or whatever else was on hand. Bullets were too expensive.

Babies Taken From Their Mothers Were Murdered by Bashing Against this Tree

Babies Taken From Their Mothers Were Murdered by Bashing Against this Tree

I really didn’t want to see “The Killing Fields”, but I felt that it was almost a duty. The very fact that it exists is an affront to me and humankind. It is a haunting reminder – which apparently we still need – of what happens when we let rigid ideology usurp our humanity. It sickens me to know that, even as I type this, that there are other killing fields being created. Once you have seen a place like Choeung Ek, you will never forget; and you will never see news from faraway places the same again.

Over 5,000 Skulls Stand as a Reminder of the Atrocities at Choeung Ek

Over 5,000 Skulls in the Stupa Stand as a Reminder of the Atrocities at Choeung Ek

For more information go to The Killing Field Museum Site.

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Author: Jonathan Look

In 2011 Jonathan Look decided to change his life and pursue adventures instead of comfort and possessions. His goal is to travel the world solo; one country at a time, one year at a time. To accomplish this he got rid of most of his possessions, packed up what little he saw as necessities and headed out. His goal is to spend ten years discovering new places, meeting new people and taking the time to learn about them, their values and their place on this tiny planet. He embraces the philosophy that says a person is the sum of their experiences and rejects the fraud of modern consumerism that makes people into slaves of their consumption. He doesn’t intend to be modern day ascetic, just more mindful of his place in the world and to make decisions according to that new standard.

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