Posted by: rob | August 5, 2007

The Killing Fields

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In Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We visited S-21, a Cambodian school that was turned into a Khmer prison, torture, and interrogation facility between 1975 and 1978 that held 17,000 prisoners over that period. There were places like this all over Cambodia. The tiled floors remain bloodstained, the shackles in place, the gallows intact, death is everywhere. It’s a gut wrenching place to visit. Cambodia’s Auschwitz. The Khmer rouge took meticulous records. Everyone was photographed on the way in, and many were photographed on their way out with a toe tag. You can look at all the photos on site, its hard to turn away from them.

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Only 7 people survived. The vast bulk were taken 13km away to be killed and dumped in the so called Killing Fields at Choung Ek. At first, prisoners were shot. Later, ammuniation supplies began to run thin so they were killed with a hunk of wood. Children and babies were battered to death against a tree that still stands. Today, a memorial is at the site, a vast tower of human skulls unearthed after the Khmer Rouge was ousted. A buddhist shrine in the fields is covered in teeth and bone fragments that visitors even today find scattered amongst the grass.

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The true horror is hard to imagine, and its no wonder that the guestbook is full of recent comments and graffiti is everywhere. Someone has scrawled “DEVASTATION” with their finger on a dusty desktop. One piece of graffiti cites Guantanamo. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but its true that we don’t learn lessons. Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Darfur. On one floor of S-21 are the stories of the young men and women who joined the Khmer Rouge and killed their own and in a strange way these tales are just as tragic as those of the innocents.

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It was a deeply depressing afternoon seeing all this but you have to see this in order to begin understanding the Cambodia of today. It is amazing that the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge were swept away just ten years ago. To see the sites in Phnom Penh simply hire a tuk tuk driver for about $6.

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