Saturday, 1 June 2013

Cambodia, Phnom Penh: Cheoung Ek Killing Fields

Cambodia, Phnom Penh in the middle of May; 38 degree weather slaps layers of sweat onto my face, before it trickles down my rapidly darkening shirt.

Having spent the last two weeks running from one corporate event to another, I figured it’d be a good idea to get away from skyscrapers and concrete, and spend some time on the other side of the world. After some thought, Alex and I decided the other side of the world would be Cambodia, home to human atrocities, monumental temples, and happy pizza.

Our first stop: a merry jaunt down the killing fields, followed by a hop and a skip to the Toul Sleng holding prison. Until recently, I only had a very vague notion of what Cambodian went through under the Khmer Rouge, I mean sure, people talk about it, but it’s not the sort of thing one actively goes out looking for, unless you’re writing a paper on human genocide. So while we were merrily scammed by our tuk tuk driver on the way to the killing fields, we did a little research into the regime.

The Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Kampuchea, a political party which ran Cambodia (then named Kampuchea) from 1975 to 1979. I’m not particularly interested in their ideology, other than it being xenophobic and insular.

In 1975, the population of Cambodia was approximately 7mi. In 1980, the population was 6.5mi. Various studies estimate the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of between 1.4mi to 2.2mi Cambodians.

By and large the leaders of the genocide have walked free. Most went on to live long and healthy lives, and have only recently apologized inMay 2013. They still maintain they were doing the right thing.

Little from the original killing fields is left standing; most of the buildings were razed for scrap material and the major building is a 12-story high mausoleum and a single story museum, which houses images of the camp. 

Visitors get a Walkman with a programmed audio tour, chock full of survivor testimonies, and disturbing stories.

Creative deaths were a recurring theme in the tour. When bullets were scarce, people were executed by their captors with farming implements, DDT, and in a few cases, sugar palm. The stems of the sugar palm are lined with serrated bark edges, sharp enough to cut through human skin. So captors, presumably dissatisfied with conventional means of death and with a lot of time on their hands, dragged the throats of prisoners across the serrated stems of the sugar palm. The edges themselves are sharp, but short, so I imagine it would take quite a few tries before the gash was large enough to be fatal. Like I said, they had time.

Another is the baby tree. Babies and toddlers, being conveniently sized, were brained against a particular tree in the compound. There’s nothing really imaginative about this, just brutishly cruel.

Baby tree, sugar palm, shudder.
The only other item that stood out to me was the Buddhist stupa, which houses more than 5000 skulls in the lower 7 levels, while the upper 5 levels house the ribs and other assorted bones. It stands out in an open field, stark, imposing, and severe, almost like a morgue.

Buddhist stupa, 12 floors of bones

Next merry monument - Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

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