After lunching at a street cafe we called our driver and he dodged us through the traffic for about 40 minutes until we came into the countryside.
Directly ahead of us is a large stupa, I’ll describe what’s in there later but the main image of this article may give you a clue.
The audio tour guides you around, giving you a button to press as you reach certain points around the track. Extra information is available at each point, including stories from guards at the prison or from people who lived nearby.
“Here, was the place where a trucks transporting prisoners to be exterminated from Tuol Sleng prison and other places in the country, stopped. Trucks would arrive 2 or 3 times a month or every 3 weeks. Each truck held 20 to 30 frightened, blindfolded and silent prisoners.
When the trucks arrived, the victims were led directly to be executed at the ditches and pits or were sent to be detained in the darker and gloomy prison nearby.
After January 07, 1979 . one truck remained but it has since been taken away.“
“Here, was the place where victims transported from Tuol Sleng and other places in the country were detained. Usually, when the truck arrived, the victims were executed immediately. However, as the number of victims to be executed was increased up to over 300 per day, executioners failed in attempt to kill them within a day. That is why they were detained for execution the next day. The detention was constructed from wood with galvanised steel roof. Its wall was built with two layers of flat wood were to darken and also prevent prisoners from seeing each other. Unfortunately, the dark and gloomy detention was dismantled in 1979.
“Here, was the place where executioners stationed permanently at Choeung Ek worked. The office as well as the killing fields were equipped with electric power which enabled them to conduct executions and to read and sign the rosters that accompanied the victims to the site at the night time.”
“Here, was the place where chemical substances such as D.D.T. etc was kep. Executioners scattered these substances over dead bodies of the victims at once after execution. This action had two purposes: firstly to eliminate the stench from the dead bodies which could potentially raise suspicion among people working near by the killing fields and secondly it was to kill off victims who were buried alive.”
The majority of the graves have now been identified, but left undisturbed out of respect for the victims. almost 9000 bodies were exhumed in the original discovery.
There are 129 mass graves alone at Choeung Ek and this is just one of many sites across the country.
One of the first graves to be uncovered contained 450 victims. The area is now protected by a pagoda, the fences of which have been covered in friendship bracelets and the floor of which also has bracelets and money strewn across it.
“Here, was the place where the killing tools such as shackles, leg irons, a hatchet, knifes hoes, digging hoes, shoves, iron ox.cart axles were stored. This instrument was lost in 1979. The storage room was constructed from wood with a galvanized steel roof.”
Just next to the place where the tool shed used to be was a small cordoned off area that explained how each year, the earth gives up pieces of bone and cloth from the bodies that were tossed into the pits. There are places, as you walk around, that have signs requesting that you take care where you walk and bones and clothes are working their way out of the ground in what seems to be a last attempt at freedom. This picture is an example of one fragment that I spotted immediately.
Towards the back of the fields, a lake comes into view. It really is stunningly beautiful and serene. Body fragments have been found on both sides of the lake and it is unknown how many lie within its depths. We sat here for some time, listening to stories of people who lived through all this and contemplating how such evil can exist. Then realised that it continues today in other countries around the world, via other extremist groups.
As we sat, quietly locked in our thoughts, I looked to the side and saw these children playing, as children do, in the field not 100 yards from us. Such innocence and natural behaviour so close to a place where such horrendous deeds had been performed. Life is such a dichotomy.
Their father, a landmine survivor, was at the fence a bit further along, chatting to visitors to the centre.
There were a large number of visitors here at Choeung Ek, but the respect and sobriety of all made one feel very alone whilst travelling the sombre paths of sadness. It truly was a spiritual experience.
If I lived around Phnom Penh, I could certainly see myself coming here for a few hours to sit in this pagoda and reflect on the world and life in general.
This next grave was discovered to have 166 victims who had been decapitated. It was a mutilation performed against those thought to have betrayed the Khmer Rouge and specifically for those accused of working with the Vietnamese (Cambodian body, Vietnamese head, went the saying).
Again, friendship bracelets adorned the fences.
A case displayed some of the clothing that remained after the main excavation of the site in 1980. Some of the clothes obviously belonged to very young children. More clothing continues to rise to the surface each year and is treated with the utmost respect by the guardians of Choueng Ek.
For some reason, the Khmer Rouge seemed to like categorising the graves. It pains me to wonder if some of the other 100+ graves here were similarly broken down into group. This one was particularly shocking, but it was what I saw next that almost brought me to my knees. Just to the left of this pagoda…
The Killing Tree
“Killing tree against which executioners beat children”
To save bullets, the executioners used various methods to kill the victims. Slitting their throats with palm leaves, bludgeoning them with various farm implements, splitting their skulls with machetes. These methods didn’t work too well on infants, so one of the more popular ways of executing young children was to swing them by their legs and smash their tiny heads and bodies on this tree. Bone, hair and blood was found embedded in the bark of this tree.
There really isn’t anything more to say on this subject, so I won’t.
We continued to walk through the fields which obviously contained many, many more mass graves. The paths were worn and fragments of clothing and bound were evident in their rise to the surface. Near the edge of the fields was the “magic tree”.
“The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.”
The speaker played martial songs or spouted Khmer Rouge propaganda which was the last sound a lot of the victims ever heard.
The design of the stupa is very important to the Cambodian people. The birds and naga all having meaning in Hindu, Buddhist and spirit cultures. There are 17 levels within the glass doors of the stupa. The first 9 contain some 9000 skulls that were unearthed here, with the rest of the levels containing the larger bones that were reclaimed from the earth.
The Cambodian government encourages visitors here. They want the story to be known in the hope that the more of us that know about it and are horrified by the history, the more of us will try to prevent it ever happening again.
Despite all these horrors, the Cambodian people are some of the most cheerful and positive I have ever met.