Killing Fields and S-21

If you're not up to date on your Cambodian history, the title above probably doesn't ring a bell. And before yesterday, it didn't for me either. Today, though, I feel otherwise. After one day of delving into the history of this beautiful country, I now feel tethered to the heaviness of the atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge (1975-1978).

Quick history lesson, and if you're starting to roll your eyes, give me a fighting chance. I'm no history junkie (in the slightest) and this stuff is just as heavy as it is interesting.

In the mid 1970s, Cambodia was in a vulnerable state. The U.S. was at war with Vietnam, and bombs were being dropped along the Vietnamese/Cambodian border. Cambodians were dying, and tensions were high. If you've ever taken a history class, you know nations are most susceptible to dictatorship uprising when in a place of political/social unrest.

In 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came into power. His regime focused efforts to create a blue-collar "utopian" communist society, rid of educators and opposition. He recruited (or rather, exploited) uneducated, illiterate Cambodians from the countryside into his militia; the Khmer (Cambodian) militia. Keep in mind, these people were all from the same country. Some of them were even related.

Promptly, the Khmer Rouge became defined by paranoia and skepticism. The militia was ordered to round up educated Cambodians and even people who wore glasses; anyone seen as a threat or anyone who held the potential of opposition... the mere brainpower to oppose. These people were ran out from their cities and brought to the countryside, in various camps and made to work long, grueling days with minimal food or water; just enough to keep them alive... for the time being, at least.

The paranoia of the Khmer Rouge grew. More and more people died from starvation and being over-worked. Simultaneously, the educated people were shipped to prisons like S-21, where they were forced to confess to crimes that were never committed. There they were tortured, bound, and eventually executed. Then, their spouses and children were executed too; in fear that they would grow up and avenge their parents death.

Sign says enough. At the Choeung Ek Genocidal Museum

Sign says enough. At the Choeung Ek Genocidal Museum

Yeah... seriously. This happened. Post-WWII. In 1978, might I add. How insane is that?

Three years under the Khmer Rouge resulted in the death of 25% of the country's population. That's one out of every four people you know and love... murdered. In cold blood. Babies, women, children, and teenagers. Families were torn apart. Some Cambodians disappeared and were never heard from again. 

Skulls of the victims found at the Choeung Ek killing fields in 1978. Over 20,000 found dead in this particular killing field

Skulls of the victims found at the Choeung Ek killing fields in 1978. Over 20,000 found dead in this particular killing field

Since then, Cambodia has been in state of rebuilding, in terms of infrastructure, education, and of course; psychologically. The long-lasting effect of these atrocities are hard to fathom.

While in the killing fields of Choeung Ek, I found myself overlooking a pond. I spotted a wooden swing on the bank, hoisted by rubber tires. I took a seat. Gently swaying, I observed the landscape around me. In the pond ahead sat lily pads and pink lotus flowers, and colorful butterflies were hovering around. Struck by the paradoxical peacefulness of this place, I had to consciously remind myself of the genocide that had occurred on the ground beneath my feet.

What an ironically perfect place for a family picnic, I thought. Meanwhile, the "lucky" survivors of this regime literally had their families ripped away from them.

My eerily peaceful view from the swing overlooking the pond at the Choeung Ek killing fields

My eerily peaceful view from the swing overlooking the pond at the Choeung Ek killing fields

These museums were both immaculately preserved, and jam-packed with detailed primary source accounts of the horrors. Even though the place was filled with tourists who hadn't directly experienced life under the Khmer Rouge, there weren't many dry eyes. Mine included... which goes without saying. I'm a giant crybaby.

In the final minutes of my audio guide, the tour proposed it was now my duty to share this piece of history. I agree. Educating ourselves is the only way to ensure these atrocities never happen again.

So, I decided to be a historian for the day. Hopefully I didn't bore you to the point of tears. And hopefully I even inspired someone to do more research. If you want to know the story that really put me in my feels, look up the story of John Dewhirst and Kerry Hamill. Below is the link to a DailyMail article that dives deeper into everything mentioned above. Copy and paste it into your browser.

Warning: if you listen to Rob Hamill's testimony, have some tissues on hand.

Much of the beauty of light owes its existence to the dark.
— Brene Brown


With light and love,