by Richard Hendry
September 9, 2014
I’m not sure what I expected when we visited the Killing Fields. The night before on board our river cruise ship, the Viking Mekong, we watched the 1984 movie of the same name. I had seen it before and it disturbed me then. The scene of Dith Prin escaping from the murderous Kymer Rouge and finding himself in a trench full of thousands of bones of those who had been murdered was disturbing. But, back then, from the distance of the United States, it was purely a movie moment.
The morning of September 9, we took a bus ride to the village of Choung Ek, Cambodia, eleven miles south of Phnom Penh – the site of the Killing Fields. This was a former orchard and now the mass grave of 17,000 men, women and children who were tortured, beaten and murdered.
The site belies its terrible history. It is green and peaceful. There is a central memorial building. Behind glass on all four corners is the first shock. Skulls and human bones are piled twenty feet high. Surrounding the monument are pathways that twist around sunken areas that have been excavated. Signs state: “Please don’t walk through the mass grave.” At various points, are descriptions of what happened at a particular spot – plus glass cases filled with bones and the tattered remains of clothing. Descriptions of torture and death depressed my soul. Sign after sign, death after death, horror after horror – until the final obscenity: a Chankiri tree where babies were swung at arms-length, their heads hitting the tree, causing instant death. Some babies were tossed in the air and impaled upon bayonets. My God, how is it possible that human beings, most aged between 10 and 15, could do such things?
That tree is now covered by thousands of colorful bracelets placed there by countless visitors who wept and agonized over these small souls whose potential would never be realized and whose final moments were full of terrible pain.
There is a profound stillness in the Killing Fields. Lisa and I walk in silence along with many others. Our faces reflect what we have seen. All in our group find it hard to believe what we have just experienced. But the day worsened as we toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, a former high school that was used as the notorious Security Prison 21. Twenty thousand were executed there. This was just one of 150 execution centers.
We were overwhelmed by the enormity of the genocide inflicted upon the gentle people of Cambodia. This was just one killing field of many. The United Nations estimate between two and three million people were destroyed by the fanatical Kymer Rouge.
Without doubt, a terrible, dismal day. A day of grief and despair, a day of rage at those who perpetrated these horrible acts.
We visited in silence, we left in silence, we returned to the ship in silence.
The Killing Fields remain – a dark and hideous testimony to the evil that stalked and destroyed the joyful parents of this beautiful land.