It was when I stood in front of the killing tree, where Khmer Rouge soldiers beat to death little babies and children, that the atrocities of the Cambodian genocide really hit me. It was like a punch in the stomach, listening via audio tape to one of the survivors explain how soldiers would kill the children by bashing their heads against the tree and then disposing of their bodies in the mass grave. The tree is now covered with colourful friendship bracelets, left by travellers who want to show a sign of peace in remembrance of a time of so much death. But when the Killing Field, 15 kilometres outside of Phnom Penh was discovered in 1980, the tree was covered in blood and human hair.
Like most visitors to the Killing Fields, I was walking around
quietly, half in shock, half in sad reflection, as the survivor on the audio
tape explained how victims, mostly prisoners from the Truong Sol prison, were
brought here by the truckload, every day, to be executed. The Khmer Rouge
soldiers didn’t want to waste expensive bullets so people were killed by being
struck with a blunt object in the back of the head — a hammer or a farming
tool — or their throat slit before being dumped into a mass grave. A little
wooden hut and bamboo fence surrounds some of the mass graves on the site — one
where women, children and babies were buried and one where the headless bodies
of government soldiers were dumped after they were decapitated. Here, too, the
pegs of the bamboo fence are draped with friendship bracelets.
A tree-lined lake covers what is thought to be another mass grave. As I sit on a bench and listen to the testimonies of a woman who was gang raped by Khmer Rouge soldiers and a man who saw his cousin killed in front of him, the sky grows dark and the winds blow stronger, hinting of an oncoming storm. The surface of the lake ripples, as if disturbed by the spirits of those who were ruthlessly killed and never given a proper burial.
There were 20,000 mass graves discovered across the country, where more than 2 million people are thought to be buried. Almost 9,000 bodies in 186 mass graves were discovered at the Killing Field site outside of Phnom Penh. Their skulls and bones are on display inside the memorial monument, 17 stories of skeletons reaching up to the sky, a painful and all too real reminder of the genocide that happened only 38 years ago.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge rebels marched into Phnom Penh claiming victory over the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government after a bloody civil war. The soldiers, many of them children, dressed in black pants and shirts with a red and white checked scarf, drove through the streets waving white flags as people cheered, believing peace had finally come to Cambodia. Within hours, citizens were forced to pack up their belongings and evacuate the city. Pol Pot , the leader of the new communist regime, declared that it was year zero and the Cambodian people had to start their civilization from scratch, leaving behind city life for a purely agrarian society where everyone was equal. He banned schools, religion, arts and cultures. Everyone should be dedicated to the Angkor government above all else.
The Khmer Rouge ran forced labour camps where men, women and
children were forced to work 14 or 16 hours a day and given only thin rice soup
to eat. Many people starved to death and anyone caught stealing food was
tortured and killed. Throughout the three year regime, more than 2 million
people, or about a quarter of the population was killed.
The Truol Sleng prison, also called S-21, was where more than 20,000 people were locked up and tortured after being accused of fictitious crimes. Anyone thought to be against the Angkor was sent to the prison and most likely killed. Better to kill an innocent than to let an enemy live, was their slogan in defence of their brutality.
Doctors, teachers, artists, anyone thought to be an intellectual
was considered a threat against the Angkor. Khmer Rouge soldiers would accuse
people of being spies and tortured them into making a false confession.
Inside one of the former cells is a board filled with photographs of victims, mug-shot style pictures taken when the person first arrived at the prison. There are children, staring at the camera with terrified eyes. It’s haunting looking in the eyes of the prisoners and wondering what they might have been thinking. One man has a defiant look, as if still prepared to fight for his freedom. One woman looks away from the camera, so hopeless she can’t even raise her eyes. Some eyes are so lifeless the person looks already dead. There are photos of the emaciated bodies, people who have starved to death or are near death.
In other rooms, there are rusty iron shackles that bound prisoners’ feet and rusty metal beds were bodies were found after the prison closed. White rectangular stones mark the graves of 14 people who were found in the prison.
There are thought to be only seven people who survived the
Truong Sol prison, only two of whom are still living.
One of the survivors, Chum Mey, sits under a leafy tree eating a lunch of rice and fish. He has white hair and wrinkles line his face but he looks much younger than his 82 years. His dark eyes are piercing yet kind and he smiles as I buy his book. He carefully writes the date above his signature with a precise but slightly shaky hand.
A mechanic who fixed cars for the Khmer Rouge army, Chum Mey was arrested on Oct 28, 1978. He doesn’t know why. He was taken into an interrogation room and soldiers beat him why asking if he was with the CIA or KGB.
Chum Mey writes that he was beaten and interrogated for 12 days. He was whipped with wire, given electric shocks and his big toe nail was pulled out.
“My feeling at the time was that I knew I would be dead. I was really terrified and I was scared of being electrocuted. Like I said, I could tolerate the pain from being beaten and having my toe nail pulled out but not being electrocuted. That was too much for me. They attached a wire to my left ear and it was like my head exploded. Kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk! My head felt like a machine and my eyes were on fire.”
Chum Mey finally made a false confession of being a CIA agent. The prison guards let him live because he started to fix cars and typewriters, which the guards needed to type the confessions.
Chum Mey testified at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in the hopes of holding some of the most senior organizers to account. Amazingly, he holds no animosity toward the guards who tortured him for days.
“During the interrogation, I was angry, but after a long while, leaning about that place, understanding that people had to do what they were told, I wasn’t angry with them anymore,” Chum Mey writes. “Even the ones who tortured me, they also lost parents and family members.”
He continues: “There’s a saying in the Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back. If you do, it means you are mad, too.’”