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The Killing Fields

Today we visited the killing fields, where from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands of men, women, and children. Anyone who was deemed as a threat to the revolution was sent to prison, tortured until they “confessed,” and then sent to the fields to be killed. Victims included former government officials, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, monks, nuns, merchants, teachers, writers, musicians, anyone who could speak a foreign language, even anyone who wore glasses. As Pol Pot became more paranoid, literally no one was safe, and the bodies of Khmer Rouge soldiers have been found in the graves as well.

I don’t even think there are words to describe how sad it was. There is an audio tour to go along with the visit and, while I normally think audio tours are cheesy, this one was really well done. Along with historical facts and details, it played stories told by survivors of the regime. Basically, whatever horrible and disturbing things you can imagine were routinely done. Bullets were too expensive to use, so the victims were beaten or stabbed to death and then thrown in mass graves. Today where the graves are roped off you can see bits of bone fragments, teeth, and shreds of clothing. Babies were bashed against trees and chucked in the pit with everyone else, because the regime didn’t want them to grow up and avenge their families. And all of this was done with music playing over loudspeakers, to try and drown out the screams of the dying.

Many of the remains have been exhumed and are now on display in glass cases in a memorial pagoda. I don’t know how many skulls are in there, thousands probably, all arranged by sex and estimated age at death, the closest thing to a tombstone that they’ll get.

Seeing these things was absolutely chilling, but I’m glad we went. It’s important to learn about this sad history, not just to prevent future genocides, but also to try to understand the national psyche here. With all that Cambodia has been through, I’m amazed it’s in as good of shape as it is. Yes, there’s a lot of poverty, but it seems to me like they’ve done a good job of getting back on their feet and carrying on. I think Cambodia is on the upswing and I certainly hope it stays that way. After enduring so much tragedy, the people here deserve some happiness.

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