The Killing Fields: Mending Lives

We are not the first people to tell this story.

It does not make for easy reading. But it is a story that needs to be retold as a reminder of the depths that humanity can sink to, then and in today’s conflicts.

When will we ever learn from the past?

Cambodia’s Killing Fields

After taking power in Cambodia in 1975, in 4 years of power, the Khmer Rouge achieved a record of barbarism rarely equaled in history, being responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century.

This brutal regime  claimed the lives of up to a 2 million people – a quarter of the total population of Cambodia.

Under the Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge quickly set about transforming Cambodia  into what they hoped would be an agrarian utopia ,taking Cambodia back to the Middle Ages , with peasants working by hand in the fields and all modern aspects of life outlawed.

Pol Pot envisioned a Cambodia absent of any social institutions such as banks, religions or schools. He sought to triple agricultural production in a year.

Declaring that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”, Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and set about emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion, and setting up rural collectives.

More than 2.5 million  Cambodians were marched out of the capital city Phnom Penh and forced into the countryside. Similar evacuations took place every time the Khmer Rouge took over a new city.

More than 2.5 million Cambodians were marched out of the capital city Phnom Penh and forced into the countryside. Similar evacuations took place in smaller towns effectively banishing the population to rural areas

The Khmer Rouge wished “to be the first nation to create a completely Communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps.”

“What is rotten must be removed,” read a popular Khmer Rouge slogan at the time, and remove they did, often by execution but sometimes simply by working people to death in the fields.

Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language.

Dissidents were eliminated. ‘To keep you is no benefit – to destroy you no loss,’ was Pot’s favored mantra.

...

Victims skulls at a memorial shrine

Hundreds of thousands of the educated middle-classes were tortured or executed in special re-education centers.
We visited the most notorious of these centres – S-21 jail, also known as Tuol Sleng, in Phnom Penh. It has been kept exactly as it was in 1979 as a sober reminder.

As many as 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned and killed at S-21 during the regime’s four years in power .

No one was spared -Doctors, teachers , students , Buddhist monks, soldiers from all ranks ,whole families. Methods of torture were horrific.

At these re-education centers some children were brainwashed into becoming Khmer Rouge soldiers. They were taught to hate their parents and many of the child soldiers’ first victims were their own parents.

 

: S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, was the Khmer Rouge's main prison and torture centre

S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, was the Khmer Rouge’s main prison and torture center. The camp rules say it all

 

S21 was converted from a school to a prison .  These cells housed 30-40 prisoners who were unable to lie down due to so many being cramped into one cell

S21 was converted from a school to a prison . These partitioned cells each housed 30-40 prisoners who were unable to lie down due to so many being cramped into one unit. Sleeping was taken in turns.

 

Cells were so narrow one could not even spread ones arms. There were no toilets or water

Individual cells were so narrow one could not even spread ones arms. There were no toilets or water

 

The barbed wire on the 1st  floor of the old school convereted to the S21  prision  was to prevent "inmates" from jumping to their death

The barbed wire on the 1st floor of the old school (convereted to the S21 prision) was to prevent “inmates” from jumping to their death

 

The Khmer Rouge’s brutality spread into every corner of Cambodia, resulting in the infamous title of the Killing Fields .

So far 343 killing fields have been uncovered to date.

We visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal center , a memorial to one killing field where 20,000 people were buried in one mass grave by the KR.

It is disturbing and moving to stand on top of a mass grave, comprising thousands of bodies.

Every time it rains, bones and teeth fragments surface from this site.

A grim display of  skulls and method of torture or death

A grim display of skulls and method of torture or death

 

The Skulls in the Genocidal center are stories high

The Skulls in the Genocidal center are stories high

 

......

……

 

Choeung-Ek-Phnom-Penh-Cambodia

 

Khmer Rouge leaders had a manic hatred for the Vietnamese and expended considerable effort in trying to whip up anti-Vietnamese sentiment. Claiming Southern Vietnam as their territory, the Khmer Rouge launched numerous cross-border raids, burning down villages and massacring their inhabitants. In all, around 30,000 Vietnamese civilians lost their lives in the attacks.

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, with the higher echelons of the party retreating to remote areas of the country.

With the withdrawal of the US from Vietnam still a fresh memory,  the Carter Administration urged international aid organizations to cut off assistance to Vietnam for having overthrown the Khmer Rouge & Pol Pot .

In 1979 the United States and China wielded their influence and pushed through a vote in the UN General Assembly in favor of granting Cambodia’s UN seat to the ousted Khmer Rouge regime, and terminated a UN investigation into Khmer Rouge crimes. The following year, the United States again supported the Khmer Rouge in the UN as the “legitimate” representative of the Cambodian people. With U.S. backing, Cambodia would continue to be represented in the United Nations by a Khmer Rouge diplomat until 1993.

Pol Pot continued to lead the Khmer Rouge as an insurgent movement until 1997, when he was arrested and sentenced to house arrest, after killing one of his closest advisers. He died in 1998 in a tiny jungle village, never having faced charges and denying the millions of people who were affected the chance to bring him to justice.

In the years that followed, as Cambodia began the process of reopening to the international community, the full horrors of the regime became apparent.

Survivors told their stories to shocked audiences.

Extracts from one survivor from S21, Keo Lundi

Extracts from a survivor from S21, Keo Lundi

 

and another, Chum Mey

 

In the 1980s a film  ” The Killing Fields” brought the plight of the Khmer Rouge victims to worldwide attention.

Yet to-date only a handful of KR perpetrators have been tried in a court of law.

History is more than just studying past problems for present day solutions. Each detail is the representation of an individual human beings experience.

The people who suffered under the Khmer Rouge deserve to be remembered and honoured.

8 Responses to The Killing Fields: Mending Lives

  1. Jeff Botha

    Thanks for this albeit grim reading. No wonder our world is in such a mess at times

  2. Stella

    Shocking I was unaware it was so recent. Thank you for the insight … So important to remember how I humane we can be
    Doesn’t make comfortable reading

  3. Mad Rider

    Thanks for your insightful posts which go beyond the mumdane.

  4. Jim and Muriel

    Man’s inhumanity to man comes to mind——–quite horrific ! Oh to rub it out and start again !! Thanks for your very shocking but real story !

  5. Mike

    Worse than the Nazi and Hitler and yet so few people are aware of this, me included. Thanks for enlightening us.

  6. Jan and Gail

    I was aware of the horrors. But not aware of the incomprehensible attitude of the Carter Admin. I have heard of some Swedes supporting the KR. All that you show is mind numbing and frightening, like what one knows about the Nazis gainst the Jews. – Jan

  7. Jan and Gail

    In my ignorance I had only heard of the film The Killing Fields but did not know anything about it. The mad inhumanity is terrible. That it continued so long is horrific. It must have been a torturous experience just to have been there as you were. Gail

  8. Joel

    A frightening story and shocking to hear about America’s support for this barbaric regime. Thanks Harry

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