April the 17th

April 17, 2014

Today, the 17th of April, marks 39 years since the Khmer Rouge finally took Phnom Penh and emptied all of its population out into the countryside. I thought I’d mark the occasion by finally making the trip out to the Killing Fields. It was, as you can imagine, utterly depressing.

First, a little explanation, for those of you who don’t know: there are two main KR death sites associated with Phnom Penh. The first is a former city centre elementary school known as Toul Sleng, or S21, which was a processing site for “spies” and enemies of the regime. It was one of at least 150 processing centres around the country. Some 20,000 people are believed to have passed through S21 to be tortured.

After S21, the prisoners were taken by truck to a site on the southwest of the city, known as Cheoung Ek, but better known as the Killing Fields. There, they were murdered, usually by a hoe to the back of the skull (to save on ammunition). Babies had their heads dashed against a tree.

When I first came to Cambodia, five or six years ago, I visited S21 with a good friend. Afterwards we went to lunch and drank three bottles of red wine in almost total silence. I’ve never been back.

So I wasn’t much looking forward to the Killing Fields, but I figured I had to go at some point, and the anniversary seemed like a good day to do it. But it wasn’t much fun.

The centrepiece of the Killing Fields is a 60-metre stupa, which is filled with 9,000 skulls. It’s even more depressing in person than it sounds. The tree they smashed the babies into is also quite profoundly moving. But otherwise it’s really just a rather calm orchard on the edge of a city. It makes one reflect on Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’, until you spot a shin bone poking out of the soil, and then it makes me furiously angry.

So not a happy day today. But it’s crucially important to remember those who died, and the scale of the tragedy in Cambodia. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.



One Response to “April the 17th”

  1. Visited both sites in one day, and similarly left feeling totally devoid of any understanding. With S21 I think it is the intimacy of the place that I found so jarring. Classrooms of a school converted into makeshift torture chambers where undescribable acts were committed. Compared to Aushwitz where the scale of the torture and murder was so enormous, there was something oppressively claustrophobic about Teul Sleng. At the Killing Fields I think banality is the perfect description. A scruffy unkempt site with poorly maintained monuments and peoples bones jutting out of the ground and into the soles of your feet….. Still not sure what I learnt from any of it.

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