The Killing Fields

by Michael Ujifusa

The Khmer Rouge’s violent regime lasted from 1975-1979. During this time, 1.7-2.5 million Cambodians died because of Khmer Rouge policies, a horrifying number considering the population was only 8 million before the genocide. Anyone suspected of being an enemy of the state was murdered. Religious minorities, intellectuals and even people whose only crime was wearing glasses were  detained and executed by the Khmer Rouge.

Located outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek is an old Chinese graveyard about the size of a large neighborhood park. In this relatively small area, over 18,000 people were murdered. The tour of the Choeung Ek Killing Fields was one of the most profound experiences I had in Southeast Asia. The audio tour, narrated by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, told a short story at each predetermined spot on the map. The manner in which victims were rounded up and processed was expounded upon in detail. Then came the chilling details of how the mass executions were performed.

Blindfolded, people would be dragged into the fields in the middle of the night. Under large fluorescent lights and blaring propaganda music*, they would be beaten to death with blunt objects**. The bodies were then dumped into mass graves, some containing over 300 victims.

*The music was used to block out the screams of the victims.

** In order to save bullets, the Khmer Rouge opted to savagely bludgeon their victims to death with common farm tools.

During the audio tour, they played the same propaganda music to recreate what the final moments for the 18,000 victims at Choeung Ek may have sounded like. The music was absolutely horrifying and I was chilled to the bone as I vividly imagined myself being bludgeoned to death.

The most abhorrent abomination in Choeung Ek was the Killing Tree; a large chankiri tree that Khmer Rouge soldiers would smash babies heads against. Pol Pot believed that there could be no seeds of rebellion, not even a newborn. The paintings nearby depicting soldiers swinging babies by their feet into a tree covered in blood and pieces of brain were absolutely nauseating.

There was a communal sense of respect for those who had lost their lives at Choeung Ek. Despite their being hundreds of people touring the Fields, the place was eerily silent. Everyone was somber, struggling to comprehend how this genocide was allowed to happen.

The tyrant Pol Pot was never truly brought to justice and died an old man living under house arrest. Several of his top officials are still awaiting justice and many in Cambodia’s current government have ties to the Khmer Rouge. What I found remarkable and inspiring about the people of Cambodia is their ability to survive. It’s hard to imagine how life can continue after so much death and darkness. However, the people are happy and many are surprisingly proficient English speakers.  Before coming to China I would not have been able to find Cambodia on a map. I would have imagined it as some dangerous, hellhole that no god-fearing American should ever visit. After leaving the place, I realized I could not have been more wrong.