This post is graphic and may not be suitable for some people. If you are sensitive to an overt discussion of humanity at its worst, please stop reading. I wrote this post as a reminder of what can happen when human beings don’t value other human beings.
This visit was particularly difficult for me. I feel deeply connected to the loss of life simply because I’m human. My visit reinforced my commitment to universal human rights. Perhaps this post will help you do the same. Everyone should visit this place and understand tragedy; as that is unlikely for most people, I hope my post can take you there.
The story of Cambodian genocide under Pol Pat’s rule is tragic. Genocide has happened for all of recorded history and likely before despite human kind only giving it a word in 1944. The bible talks of attacking cities leaving no survivors. In the stories, God did it at Sodom and Gomorrah. The Greeks did it. The Romans did it. The Mongols did it. The American settlers did it.
While it is unfair to apply today’s moral standard to the distance past, we’re left with the sour truth that the twentieth century has the horrid honor of encompassing the collectively worst genocides in human history. Increased global population and the rise of totalitarianism have collided in a moral train wreck. The only encouraging thing is that we’ve collectively decided that this is not okay. One thousand years ago, these events were simply a risk of being human and celebrated by victors; the sentiment was that this was simply part of wars and wars are what humans do. Today, much of our modern global society finds war a horrid and unfortunate act, and committing genocide abhorrent and unthinkable. Progress of the mind proceeds progress of the civilization.
Pol Pat’s genocide that killed (directly and indirectly) as many as 2.5 million people is not the worst… not even close. In the twentieth century Ze-Dong Mao, Adolf Hitler, Leopold II of Belgium, Jozef Stalin, Hideki Tojo, and Ismail Enver all committed atrocities, each with individually higher body counts, killing between 90 and 120 million.
Today I visited the Killing Fields, now called the Cheung Ek Genocidal Center, just outside the city of Phnom Penh. I took my children there. I want them to understand that as soon as you dehumanize someone, as soon as any individual human life has “less value,” the worst imaginable things can happen… in this case, far worse than any healthy human can imagine. Nearly 9,000 individual humans have been found in graves here and several of the mass graves here were left unexamined… at rest.
The evidence makes this site special and different from many other genocidal sites of the twentieth century. It is disturbingly well preserved and leaves so little the to imagination that the haunt is surreal.
The deranged and extreme regime put in place was there to weed out anyone who didn’t subscribe to the socialist utopia he envisioned. As Pol Pat became progressively more paranoid, this expanded to… well… anyone. His mantras were diabolical. “No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out.” "Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake." Justifying over killing just to be sure.
“To kill the grass, you take the roots” meant that women, children and the old were killed right along offending men leaving no one to seek vengeance. This was, after all, genocide. The part that makes this place special among genocidal spots in the twentieth century is the methods used and the corresponding carnage and evidence.
You see, bullets were expensive and thus shooting people was expensive. If you’re going to murder vast swaths of your fellow man economically, you must use inexpensive mechanisms. People were murdered by bludgeoning with hammers, clubs, machetes, bamboo sticks. They had their throats slit with palm tree petiole. They were burned alive, sometimes not quite to death. They were perfunctorily dumped in mass graves and covered with DDT to control the stench. This was the story for the men.
The story of women and children is far worse. As if the malfunction in the human brain that allows for this desecration of humanity is wired backwards, the deaths of the women and children were more brutal. Women here are most often found in their graves without clothes because many were raped before they were murdered. Children were beaten against a tree until dead and tossed atop their mothers.
Standing in front of the killing tree can only overwhelm. Tears that started in my heart dampened my eyes. I found myself so full of sorrow that I had no room for anger; which in itself was hard to understand. I was simply filled with a sense of profound loss.
There are many mass graves in this killing field.
There are many killing fields like it in Cambodia.
As time goes on, bones and their owners’ clothes surface. None of the dead here are at peace; they claw their way to the surface at an agonizing pace.
Hell lives here below a thin layer of earth, while awkward peace and tranquility lie above.