Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields

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Vicky Philpott

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Written by: Vicky Philpott

Beggars. We’ve all experienced them. Nobody enjoys being stopped and asked for money. If you say no, you feel a sense of guilt for going about your day in reasonably affluent comfort, knowing you’ve got a cosy warm home to go to and a family who’ll be there to look after you if you’re in trouble, whereas daily life for them is a constant struggle. If you do give them money, you still feel bad because you are never quite sure why they are in the situation they’re in, or whether your money is helping to fuel an addiction to heroin, gambling or alcohol. The official advice on beggars in Asia is to avoid giving them money, as it will only serve to give them the idea that a profit can be made, and if anything, will aid the growth of begging in the area.

Cambodian beggars are in a league of their own, and when you come face to face with them, it is very hard to feel anything but deep compassion.

child beggars in cambodia

Cambodia’s history

Over the last 30 years the Cambodian people have collectively suffered more than any other nation in the world. Never before have I been to a place where the sense of pain and loss has been so tangible.

During the Vietnam/Indochina war, the northern and eastern regions of Cambodia held strategic routes for the Communist Army of Vietnam. Fearing that the Cambodians would join forces with the communists, America ‘displaced’ the present King and president, and replaced them with a government more sympathetic to Western views. They also heavily bombed the rural areas of the northeast in an unsuccessful attempt to sever the artery of the Ho Chi Minh trail and gain the upper hand against the Vietnamese.

Understandably, the locals in the areas subjected to the bombings became fiercely anti-American and formed a guerrilla group fighting on the side of the Communists. They called themselves the Khmer Rouge.

As the war continued, the Khmer Rouge grew stronger, recruited more members and pushed the front line closer to the capital of Phnom Penh. In mid April 1975, the Americans took down the star spangled banner from the embassy roof and fled Cambodia, effectively conceding defeat.

The 17th of April, Cambodian New Year, began with thousands of residents celebrating the end of the war in the streets of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge rounded up every single citizen, and evacuated the city en masse, telling them that the Americans were coming back in their planes to bomb the capital.

The memorial at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge regime

They decided to try to rid the country of the ‘traitors’ from the old regime, whom they called ‘City Folk’ or ‘The Old People’ so the ‘Villagers’ or ‘New People’ could have a fresh start. The mass executions began. The Khmer Rouge rounded up anyone who seemed to be educated, as this was a sign they were from the old regime. Doctors, Teachers, Lawyers, Journalists and Policemen were executed. People with soft hands were executed. People were executed for wearing spectacles, as it was seen as a sign of education. Wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and grandparents were executed for being related to ‘traitors’.

Children were brainwashed at re-education camps to spy on their families and report anything to the Khmer Rouge which they thought might be disloyal to ‘Angka’ (the KR government). The ‘city folk’ who weren’t executed worked 12 hour days for seven days a week, with nothing but a small bowl of rice broth for sustenance. Anybody too weak to work was killed. With appalling living conditions, enforced hard labour and no doctors left alive to treat the sick or injured, many died of disease, starvation and malnutrition.

The Khmer Rouge were eventually overthrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese and retreated once more to the countryside, where they continued to terrorise the nation for years to come. The Cambodian Government recently carried out an extensive census of the survivors, asking for details of friends and relatives who had been murdered, or had starved or died through lack of medical attention over the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge. The results came back that a staggering 3 million people died during this short time, in other words approximately one third of the entire Cambodian population.

The leftover skulls of the Killing Fields in Cambodia

Tourism and the locals

So along came Big Joe The Tourist in 2005, only 30 years after this all happened, hoping for some nice photos of Angkor Wat temples, and with only a vague idea that some guy called Pol Pot had been a bastard here a few years back. But he was dead now, so that was ok then.

Boy, was I in for a shock.

I got to Siem Reap at about ten o’clock at night, got to my hotel and put my head down. In the morning, I got up and went out for a look around town. As soon as I set foot outside the hotel, little kids of no more than five came up to me asking for money.

I tried to wave them off but they just followed me around. As soon as one gave up, another one tried their luck. I wasn’t prepared for it at all. After about 20 minutes wandering around, a guy of about 40 with his shirt open stepped out in front of me from behind a rack of clothes and blocked my path.

‘Hello mister!’ he said in a cheery voice. I looked into his face and greeted him with a smile. Small scars twisted his features in unusual directions. My gaze drifted down to his chest. More scars, bigger this time.

‘Lan My!’ he said, as I noticed for the first time the stumps where his arms should have been.
‘Lan My! BOOM!’

At this point he threw his stumps out to their extremities in an attempt to demonstrate the size of the blast caused by the mine. I recoiled in shock and, I am ashamed to say, disgust. ‘Money for food?’ he asked me, in a timid voice. I looked back into his face and he could no longer meet my eye. It struck me then that here was a fiercely proud man, reduced to begging tourists for enough money to stave off hunger. I thought about getting a note out, realised I couldn’t give it to him without tucking it in between his teeth, and got embarrassed and flustered. I turned around and fled for the sanctity of my hotel room, where I had the nice western luxuries of cable TV and air conditioning waiting for me, to take my mind off the shock of what had just happened.

Mass graves at the Killing Fields

I sat in my room and felt guilty as I thought about the appalling way I had just handled the situation. I just hadn’t been prepared for anything like that at all, and made a resolve to be friendly and pleasant to the beggars in future. I wondered about how valid the arguments for not giving money to beggars are when you come face to face with someone as wretched as that, whose fate was brought about by a war whose politics he probably never really even knew about, let alone cared. He was the first of many – far, far too many – landmine victims I saw on the streets of Cambodia and I was a lot more understanding to them from then on.

So I went to Angkor Wat, just outside Siem Reap, and the begging there continued unabated.

However, it was an absolutely amazing place, with immense buildings dotted about in the woods, each covered in intricate carvings dating back the best part of a millenium before moving on to Phnom Penh.

If Siem Reap was a starter for harrowing sights, Phnom Penh was the main course, dessert, coffee, mint and complimentary hot towel all rolled into one. On my first day there I visited the Killing Fields, just outside the city, which was a mass execution site used during the Khmer Rouge reign. At this site, which is duplicated the length and breadth of Cambodia, close to 9,000 bodies had been exhumed from 86 mass graves. Another 43 graves had been left untouched.

A memorial building had been built by the entrance, about four storeys high, which was filled with shelf upon shelf of skulls which still bore evidence of the executioners chosen methods. Bullet holes, machete wounds, caved in skulls. They just went on and on.

Many of the bodies which were unearthed were missing their heads. There was one grave of more than 100 victims, women and children and the sign beside it informed us they had been buried naked. The suggestion of what horrors may have occurred in the minutes before their execution was left hanging in the air.

I passed a tree that had been used by the Khmer Rouge for killing babies. They apparently held them by the ankles and then just took a swing at the trunk. The tree also has deep scars in it, mostly at either neck height or thigh height, what would be neck height for someone sitting down. You could almost still hear the cries and smell the terror in the air. It wasn’t a nice place.

wall displays at the Killing Fields

As I walked along, overwhelmed by what had occurred there such a short time ago, I looked down at my feet. Right there, underneath my sandals, half buried in the earth, were the clothes of victims who had never been exhumed. I felt sick. It was time to go.

The next day I went to S21. This was an old school which had been converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison for ‘traitors’ and used as an area for torturing them. On display were many items used for torture, including a gallows which was in the playground next to the kid’s climbing frames, where people were hoisted up by their hands, which were tied behind their backs and dunked headfirst into a bucket of filthy water until they passed out or often died. This was one of the more humane methods on display.

The most disturbing of everything I saw at S21 were the photo boards, which were put up in the communal cells. They displayed photos taken by the prison guards of the prisoners for their records. Some had a look of fear in their eyes, many had their hands tied behind their backs, most were staring through the camera with an expression of hopeless resignation which was worse even than the look of fear.

One row of boards displayed the photos of some of the youngest traitors held prisoner:

Most if not all of these ‘Enemies of Angka’ were executed. Most of them had the same dead expression of the adults.

Grim words at the Killing Fields

The only photo I saw of any prisoner younger than these ones held my attention for a good few minutes. With an entire wall devoted to it, hung one solitary picture, displaying the prisoners in about three times their life size. It was a photo of a mother holding a newborn baby. The mother had the same lifeless, hopeless expression on her face as in many of the other photos as she stared into the lens of the camera, but the baby just lay there sound asleep, completely unaware of their impending death. I found the stark contrast of the peace of the child and the pain of the mother deeply moving. I just couldn’t take my eyes away from it, it was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, and truly brought home the suffering of these people more than any statistics or news reports ever could.

After seeing all the things I’ve seen in Cambodia, and also more recently in Saigon in Vietnam, I would like to think that the world would learn a lesson from history.

Approximately 2 million landmines lay underneath the soil of Cambodia alone, patiently waiting for the day they will ruin the lives of men, women, children and the families they love, yet on the first of March 2004 the Bush Administration in America reversed policy to eliminate all antipersonnel landmines. Many other countries still produce, export and deploy them every day.

The largest holocaust in the history of mankind took place just a few decades before the one in Cambodia, and the lesson wasn’t learnt. A few years after Cambodia it happened in Yugoslavia, and is still going on today in other parts of the world. The worst realisation is that things like this will probably just continue to take place, and as long as we strive so hard to forget the cruelty with which mankind has treated each other, they definitely will.

Having said that, it is worth bearing in mind that in certain circumstances ignorance can still be bliss…


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