Updated: May 26
"In 1978, the Khmer Rouge killed my father and uncles. Five men in my family, all killed,"
This is what my guide explains before we set off in his tuk tuk to the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. It is just one site of many all over Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge rounded up people in a truck, telling them they were taking them to a better place to live and work. On arrival, they imprisoned them, but not for long.
At night, the Khmer Rouge would play revolutionary songs loudly, over speakers. The screeching songs, mixed with the sound of the diesel generator, drowned out the screams of the prisoners as they were bludgeoned to death. The bodies were then thrown into a mass grave and sprinkled with DDT. Those who weren't dead by the bludgeoning were finished off with the DDT, which also helped to control the stench of the decaying bodies.
I arrive at the site. It looks peaceful, surrounded by rice paddies. Then I see the craters, each one indicative of a mass grave. Bones protrude from the ground, as do pieces of clothing. The rainy season uncovers these artifacts. Each month volunteers collect what gets unearthed. In the center of the site is a towering stupa. I must tip my head back to see to the top because it is so tall. It's filled with skulls and large bones. There are so many bones that the small ones could not be placed inside this memorial.
I see the Killing Tree. When first discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there were bits of brain and skin embedded in the blood stained bark. This tree was where the Khmer Rouge smashed the heads of babies and small children.
There are small plots of dirt cordoned off and shaded by a roof at which my audio tour tells stories of what happened. It's a somber place. Everyone wants to turn back time and bring these people back. The posts around these plots are filled with peace bracelets. People have also thrown bracelets and money on the dirt itself. I can tell these plots are treated with respect because the money I see is deteriorating in place. No one dares to remove it. I recognize some of the money. I am surprised to see Ben Franklin's face on a rotting $100 bill. That's a month's wage here, yet no one will remove that bill.
The Khmer Rouge took advantage of a cruel and corrupt government to put in place an even crueler government. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, although educated, sought out and tortured or killed every person with an education. He killed all the doctors he could find, the teachers, anyone who wore glasses, anyone who read, who owned books. He broke families apart, taking the children and turning them into soldiers for the cause, soldiers who were then willing to kill their own family if necessary. He forced everyone living in Phnom Penh to leave the city and move into the countryside to farm the land. Those who didn't die of starvation and disease were tortured, many killed.
One out of four Cambodians died at the hand of the Khmer Rouge. Bullets were precious, which is why bludgeoning was preferred. I saw the cracked skulls and the smashed jaws. Pregnant women were not immune. Fetuses were cut from their bellies and hung up on tree branches.
It's gruesome. It's an unbelievably cruel story, one that the world watched from the outside. And a story that continues to this day. There are still Khmer Rouge awaiting trial for war crimes. The trials get delayed, which is no relief to the victims' families.
Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, was a Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge. When he saw their fall coming, he fled to Vietnam and led the rebel army that was sponsored by the Vietnamese to take down the Khmer Rouge. Hun has been Primer Minister for decades, and refuses to give up the position. He appointed many Khmer Rouge to government posts.
Hun Sen never had to answer for his actions as Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge. Would the world have turned Germany over to one of Hitler's commanders to rule? I think not. I understand why the Cambodians are dismayed at having this dictator in power.
Many in the world support Hun Sen because they think he is a better alternative than anyone the opposition can put forward. The Hun Sen supporters are not the people who lost family under the Khmer Rouge.