Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Killing Fields: Genocide Part II

Somewhat shell-shocked after what we heard and saw at S-21 prison (Tuol Sleng), we went directly to The Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek, as most visitors do.  There are about 300 other known killing fields around Cambodia, but this is the largest and most famous. Most of the 17,000 people sent to S-21 met their demise here.

Cheoung Ek is equally disturbing, but in a different way.  It is located 10 miles southwest of Phnom Penh, in a fairly quiet area.  All of the buildings that were there from 1975 - 1979 were immediately torn down and used elsewhere after the Khmer Rouge regime was ousted.  What is left is a peaceful, pastoral setting, which makes it even more eerie.

The self-guided audio tour begins around this patch of grass

Kiosks are set up where various buildings used to stand

Kiosks show the former location of the initial truck stop, the detention center, the executioner's working office, the chemicals storage shed, the killing tools shed, etc.

Most prisoners were executed upon arrival, when they were always blindfolded.  In later years, so many prisoners arrived daily that the executioner couldn't kill them all immediately, so they were detained for a day.  This was partially to make sure that all of the executions were well documented.

Kiosk showing the location of the Executioner's Working Office

The Khmer Rouge didn't waste money on bullets.  They mostly killed the adult prisoners with whatever tools were available:  shovels, hoes, shackles, leg irons, hatchets, knives and iron ox cart axles.  There is also a certain kind of palm tree with ridges of bark that are sharp enough to slit someone's throat.

The base of this palm tree was used as a killing tool

Babies were killed by holding their legs and slamming their heads against a large tree.

We left several of our own Buddhist shrine strings here

The sound of people screaming was masked with large loudspeakers hung from a huge tree.  The speakers blared out traditional Khmer music, and loud diesel generators were also turned on to create even more of a noise screen.  This must have added to the horror of the victims.  To those outside the compound, it may have sounded like some sort of Khmer celebration.

The tree from which the loudspeakers were hung

There are various mass graves scattered over the site.  Almost 9000 skulls were excavated at this site, but several of the graves were left intact.

One of many mass graves at Cheoung Ek
There are also a few people buried around this pond, and left in peace
Samples of clothing, bone and teeth fragments found over the years
The rice paddies just outside the boundary fence give "The Killing Fields" their name

In the center of the complex, there is a large slupa (Buddhist memorial).  Many of the excavated skulls are displayed here.

The slupa is a simply designed memorial

There are seventeen floors of skulls in the slupa

View of one level of skull display

It is hard to comprehend that most of the perpetrators have escaped prosecution.  After the Khmer Rouge was ousted from the country in 1979, they continued launching attacks for many years from a base near the border of Thailand.

Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge's DK party retained its seat at the UN, because the U.S. and others opposed the Vietnam invasion and didn't consider that government to be legitimate.  True democratic elections in Cambodia, facilitated by the UN, only occurred in the years after Vietnam withdrew its troops in 1989.

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal only began in 2009, after many years of discussion.  Pol Pot died in 1998, and thus escaped prosecution.  Others leaders have died as well.  The only major figure convicted thus far is Kueng Guek Eav, known as Duch, who was the commandant at S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison.  He was cooperative and seems to have had some remorse.  His sentence was reduced from 35 to 19 years, to recognize time served.

Kueng Guek Eav (Comrade Duch) at a Khmer Rouge Tribunal hearing

The most powerful woman in the Khmer Rouge was former Social Affairs Minister leng Thirith, whose sister was married to Pol Pot.  She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2012, and deemed not fit to stand trial.  On our last night in Phnom Penh, we met a Dutch man who claimed to be the expert witness psychiatrist who made this determination. He believes that some aspects of the tribunal are a bit of a charade anyway, given remaining influences in the Cambodian government.

It is unclear whether the tribunal will result in any further closure regarding the Khmer Rouge years.  It was a brutal chapter in Cambodian and world history.

Survivors like our tour guide Sokha will never get their family members back.  But the optimistic, forward looking attitude of  Cambodia's youthful population (55% under age 25) was evident throughout our 3-week visit.  These people give Cambodia a brighter future.

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