The Killing Fields – Chœung Ek

Today we went to see the killing fields.

Officially it’s the Chœung Ek Genocidal Center. This is the place where prisoners were executed by the thousands during the Khmer Rouge / Pol Pot regime in the 1970s. They were transported from the prison in the city proper to the fields in the southwest of Phnom Penh, where they were efficiently but brutally murdered and dumped into mass graves.

Who were the prisoners? Anyone intellectual, religious, or accused of being a dissident…and their families and their children, including the babies. Why? So there wouldn’t be any kids who grew up seeking revenge.

We’ve met people who lost half of their family, and they count themselves as the lucky ones.

When you walk into the…museum? park?…the first thing you see is a three- or four-story structure. As you get closer you can see they sell flowers and offer incense for visitors to pay their respects.

When you get closer still you can see that in the building, on over a dozen shelves one on top of the other, are the bones of the victims, including six shelves of skulls.

It was at this that my mind shut down; it just doesn’t have a frame of reference to see those two stories of skulls as people.

The rest of the fields are preserved, with only wooden signs, a few roped-off areas, and a small museum building.

Other people were taking photographs. I couldn’t, mostly because it seemed disrespectful, somehow, that human remains of human lives were reduced to an image of an afternoon outing. This isn’t live journalism, where a horrible secret is brought to the public eye. Now it’s just a quiet storehouse of something past but not quite passed.

The place isn’t dead, either…not blasted into nonlife, nor even built over by civilization. The grass is green, and there’s very little grass in the city. The weeds are everywhere. There are turkeys or chickens or something walking around with their chicks.

The circular depressions in the ground have, for the most part, been covered with a layer of small vegetation.

I can’t treat this as a tourist attraction, although some others seem to be. (And the visitors are a mix of Cambodians and foreigners.) But it struck me that this isn’t tourism, it’s a monument…and that I’ve never really understood what “monument” means.

Eventually, it came time to leave the field of the dead, and return to the land of the living.

As I said, I couldn’t bring myself to take any photographs of the bones, or of the graves. There are photos online, both of the disinterrment and of what Chœung Ek looks like today.

This photo was taken at the Genocidal Center, but it is not a true photo of the killing fields.

The Cambodian flag flies in front of a tree blocking the central monument structure.