Keepers of the Memory: The Cambodian Killing Fields

15February 2018

It’s easy to catch martyrdom syndrome when backpacking. Oh whoa is me! I’ve relinquished my career ambitions (really more of a ‘pause’), reduced my possessions to what I can carry on my back (and fit into my mother’s storage spaces), and shunned worldly comforts such as Pandora, Hulu, and Amazon Prime (Now I only have YouTube and Netflix!). You may gaze upon me with pity and secret admiration at my minimalist lifestyle. Right. The hardest trials I’ve yet to face is finding a place to purchase tampons and mild disappointment that my “sausage” pizza was actually adorned with sliced hotdog. On the occasion, though, that I find myself dipping into that delusion, SE Asia has a way of bringing me sharply back into focus about just how privileged I am. Our visit to The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, Cambodia created one of those moments of clarity.

Nate and I did our homework before reaching Phnom Penh by watching First They Killed My Father, a movie about the genocide of one quarter of the Cambodian people following the American withdrawal of troops from the region during the Vietnam War. If you haven’t seen this film - directed by Angelina Jolie and found on Netflix - I highly recommend it. It follows one girl’s recollection of being driven from the capital city to live and work first in a labor camp with her family and then later as a child soldier for the communist Khmer Rouge all the while watching her family members be killed off. Their crime being only that they were city dwellers and the father’s association with the military. While those loyal to the government were general ex ecuted outright, anyone deemed an intellectual (artist, teacher, doctor, etc.) was driven into labor camps to create the agrarian utopia that the rebellion leader, Pol Pot, envisioned. Even with this introduction, though, we were unprepared to learn more about the horrors that took place in this country just 40 years ago.

From our hostel, we booked two tours. First, we would go to S21, a high school converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. Of the nearly 14,000 “prisoners” who came through this interrogation/extermination site, only seven survived. Ironically, what saved those seven were the skills that damned them in the first place. They each had a talent needed by the Khmer Rouge, like being able to fix a typewriter or make a sculpture of their leader. At the end of our tour, we actually saw two of the seven men sitting behind a pile of books they’d written about their experiences. They were right there, right in front of us. I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that this atrocity happened in our so recent past. The Holocaust had come and gone, and history still repeated itself. This, I guess, is why our audio tour guide kept reminding us that with everything we learned during the tour, we were now entrusted “keepers of the memory.” There was no call to action beyond that, just the acknowledgement that we know and must remember so that it doesn’t happen again. So, while this isn’t a fun blog, I hope you’ll still read it so that you too can keep the memory.


Our audio tour guide narrated our walk through the various buildings on the prison grounds. The building above was used for torturing “traitors” to the government. They knew this because when the Vietnamese army came in and liberated the city, those who ran the prison fled, killing the prisoners whom they were torturing and leaving them chained to beds. The decaying bodies were found by some Vietnamese photojournalists. The photos they took of the victims are hung in the rooms above the bare iron bed frames where they laid.

This building was separated into many tiny cells for prisoners to await their turn to be tortured for fabricated confessions. Most of the people in the camp were innocent of any crime, but prison guards followed the orders of their leader, Pol Pot, who infamously said, “Better kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.” Some of the prisoners were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two of those killed in the prison were New Zealanders who were traveling around the world. When their canoes entered Cambodian territory, they were seized and brought to S21. They were also tortured and made to confess their crimes. One man’s family was later given access to his written confession in which he claimed to be a CIA operative under the command of Colonel Sanders and Sergeant Pepper.


Just as in the concentration camps used by Nazi Germany, the guards took meticulous notes about each prisoner. Each one was photographed and a biography was written. Then any ounce of humanity including their names (they were given numbers) and clothes (what they were allowed to wear was dyed black so that everyone looked the same) was removed. As we walked around the buildings, now dedicated to the victims’ memories, their black and white terrified faces peered back at us. Who knew killing could be so systematic.

After a prisoner had confessed, he or she was told that they would be transported to another camp. In fact, they were transported, by the truck loads, to the Killing Fields. These were areas of mass graves, where prisoners were led blindfolded to a hole and bludgeoned to death - bullets were too expensive and needed at the front lines - so that they fell lifeless into a pre-dug grave. A loud speaker tied to a tree playing traditional songs and an electric generator masked the sound of their screams. The guards would spray the bodies with a chemical afterwards with the dual purpose of making sure everyone died and to reduce the smell.


Nate and I toured one of the nearest killing fields to Phnom Penh. It had several mass graves, including one just for babies. A tree just next to the grave was used by the guards to efficiently smash their skulls before throwing them into the pit.


The tour ended with a visit to the memorial Stupa that housed many of the skulls and bones that had been carefully exhumed. Several bones remain buried around the site, and we were reminded many times to not touch anything. The caretakers go around once every few months to collect what has surfaced.

The genocide officially ended in 1979, but the effects are still felt. Obviously, the memories of loved ones killed needlessly are still felt. The country as a whole is still bouncing back from the loss of most of its professional population that was systematically destroyed. I had a chance to interview an English Language Fellow who was teaching English to Park Rangers working at Angkor Wat. She said that many of her students are illiterate because the culture the Khmer Rouge spread was one of working the land, not going to school.

I just scratched the surface of what the Khmer Rouge reign of terror actually looked like and how it impacted the Cambodian people of the past, present, and future. How the blind following of a mad man's vision of a greater society caused an estimated 3 million people to die horrendously. There are many, many resources out there if you want to learn more. Please help keep the memory so that it might influence our own present and future...especially as our own country stands so divided today.