Some films stay in your mind long after watching them. ‘The Killing Fields‘ is one of them. The award-winning film depicts the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. We see this through the eyes of two journalists, Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg. Even more, Dith Pran said the film came nowhere near the true horrors his country experienced.
The Killing fields of Choeung Ek is the most well-known of over 300 across Cambodia. I visited Choeung Ek on a quiet November morning. Visitor signs read, ”dress modestly”, ”speak quietly” and ”do not smoke”. As a result it was silent most of the time. It’s difficult taking photos where terrible crimes have occurred. The execution of around 17,000 men, women, children and infants took place here between 1975 and 1978. They were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets.
1980 saw the exhumation of the remains of 8,985 people from mass graves. Many of the dead were bound and blindfolded. The site at one time had been a longan fruit orchard. Scattered around the site today are fragments of human bone and bits of clothing. More than 8,000 skulls await at the Memorial Stupa, visible behind clear glass panels.
As the country tries to move on from its past, most of Cambodia’s 300 killing fields no longer exist. It’s estimated more than 1.3 million people were executed in these killing fields between 1975 and 1979. The mass killings are regarded as state sponsored genocide. British sociologist and academic Martin Shaw describes the genocide as “the purest genocide of the Cold War era.”
One in four Cambodians affected
The total number of estimated deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge ranges from 1.7 to 2.5 million. This includes the likes of disease and starvation. In 1975 Cambodia had a population of roughly 8 million. So approximately one out of every four people. Many died in barbaric ways. The Khmer Rouge soldiers used methods that are still too shocking to document. These soldiers were largely teenage peasants rounded up from remote villages by the regime.
The Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh was a former high school taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces in 1975. It became known as Security Prison 21 (S-21) – the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner had their photo taken as they entered S-21. This could be before or after torture.
Doomed faces of men, women and children dominate the museum today. Nearly all died here. As the insanity of the Khmer Rouge regime intensified, the hunters became the hunted. Many of the executioners and torturers died at the hands of those that took their places. At its peak, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. There were only seven prisoners alive at S-21 when the Vietnamese army liberated the city in 1979. The prisoners had stayed alive using their skills such as painting and photography.
Pol Pot and the Cultural Revolution
While in Cambodia I learned more about Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was a Cambodian socialist revolutionary who became the leader of Cambodia (then known as Kampuchea) on 17 April, 1975. He led a dictatorship that put in place a radical form of agrarian socialism. He believed his once great country had grown weak and needed to return to its agricultural roots. In practice this meant forcing all those who lived in the cities to move to the countryside to work in collective farms and forced labour projects. People like doctors, teachers and office workers.
Mao Zedong’s recent Cultural Revolution of communist China had inspired Pol Pot. He wanted to implement the same revolution in Cambodia. The results were atrocious for the population. Those not immediately killed on arrival lived in constant fear. Fear of execution, forced labour, malnutrition and poor to non-existent medical care.
The rest of the world had little awareness of the genocide. The true horrors were only revealed towards the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, when the likes of Dith Pran escaped and was able to tell his story.
Pol Pot fled to the jungles of southwest Cambodia in 1979. His Khmer Rouge government collapsed. From 1979 to 1997, he clung to power with another member of the old Khmer Rouge regime near the border of Cambodia and Thailand. Pol Pot committed suicide in 1998 while under house arrest. He was never brought to account for the appalling crimes he committed.
Today the killing fields of Cheoung Ek and the Genocide Museum of Tuol Sleng stand as reminders of the not-too-distant past. They are also an important lesson to the generations of today and the future.