A Descent Into Hell: The Killing Fields of Cambodia

August 9, 2012 in Asia, Cambodia, Travelogue

The air is warm and swirling in that way that only tropical air does.

It smells of the  frangipani  blossoms that are littered like a carpet of wedding flowers through the courtyard. If I close my eyes, it’s the Four Seasons Hualalai, in Hawaii. The air smells achingly sweet, but it tastes like bile. The farthest thing from anyplace beautiful; this is a tropical hell. Even Dante couldn’t have dreamt it up.

This was a high school once. I imagine young people draped over railings laughing and talking, the scratch of chalk on the boards painted black, a line of bicycles drawn up out front. And then, April 17, 1975 dawned, Pol Pot and the boys rolled into Phnom Penh and the world spiraled out of control for a very long time.


How do you explain a totalitarian regime, idealism taken to its deadliest extreme, the depth of human depravity and the murder… the abject murder… of an estimated 3 million people, over 25% of the population, to a ten year old?

Heck, somebody explain it to me.

We filed through the classrooms turned torture chambers. Metal beds with iron manacles. Implements of torture. A photograph in each room of the last person to die in that room, just as they found them: bloated, bloody, chained to the bed before us.

We filed past thousands of photographs behind glass. Ghosts staring out at us from a past I lived, but in a very different place and time. Defiant eyes, desperate eyes, despairing eyes, one set with a flicker of hope remaining, more than one photograph with two sets, mother and child. I catch the reflection of a ghost in the glass in front of the picture, tears running down her face… or maybe that was my reflection. It’s hard to tell.

Their silent screams echo in the deadly quiet.

20,000 persons: men, women, children, fathers, mothers, brothers, lovers, artists, poets, teachers, noodle makers, students, babies, toddlers, teenagers, grandmothers.


20,000 persons walked into that prison between August of 1975 and 1979 and do you know how many walked out? Seven. 19,993 humans passed through this building to their deaths.

Chew on that for a minute.

“Mama,” Ezra whispers up at me, “Pol Pot was not a good guy.” His face is solemn. It took him three weeks after we visited Buchenwald, when he was six, to stop announcing loudly that, “The Germans are the BAD GUYS!” He’s discovering that there are other bad guys. That evil knows no national bounds, rather it’s a matter of the heart.

The faces claw at my soul.

I fight the urge to vomit. Everything is too clean. I can smell the stench, the fetid human reek that precedes death in such horrific ways over the light flower blossoms dropping like silent memorials. One for each ghost. I stagger from the building, head reeling, eyes blurred, pushing past the touts and the tuk-tuk drivers, even past the man with one leg blown off by a land mine, my lungs groping for fresh air, my mind for understanding.


How can this happen?

The ride from Tuol Sleng Prison to the Killing Fields is long, hot and dusty. We bump along and I try to imagine what it would be like to make the trip half naked, beaten badly, with teeth knocked out, wire marks on my body and bloody fingertips where my nails used to be, before they were pulled out during interrogation. We run out of gas. Our tuk-tuk driver laughs, apologizes and pours a glass liter Pepsi bottle full of petrol into the tank before careening off into the traffic again. The children are ominously silent. Tony’s jaw muscle is working in and out.

I take a deep breath and force myself to look around:

  • A lake full of floating gardens, tended by people in wooden boats.
  • Noodle stands and sweet bun carts.
  • An old military truck piled high with some fresh cut grass and six men sitting like crows on the top of the load barrel past us.

The worst is yet to come.

Stand with me and look across a series of pits, soft depressions in the ground filled with green grass. There are raised footpaths between them. Mass graves. 400 people tipped lifeless into this one. That one over there? Another 700. The one near the back there, next to the plaque? That one was filled with bodies, but no heads, the Khmer Rouge executed their own here as well, for wrong thinking, apparently: Pol Pot had a saying: “Vietnamese heads, Kampuchean bodies.” So they removed the offending heads.

Look closely as you walk: that’s not trash littering the ground, as is so often the case, those are bits of clothing emerging from the ground as the rain softens the earth this summer. And those aren’t sticks, those are bones: femurs, tibia, jaw bones, teeth, fingers, vertebrae. They even surface on the walk ways, so watch your step.

Tony points out the shell of a round from an AK 47 making its way to the surface, but that is unusual. The Khmer Rouge didn’t waste bullets on execution. These people were hacked to death with farm implements and their bones tell the grisly story.

There is a tree that I stand beneath and weep.

I am a mother, and so I must weep, for all of the other mothers. There are bracelets of every size, shape and color decorating the trunk in place of the bits of brain and bone and hair that have washed away over countless rainy days in my lifetime. The sky comes here to cry too, it seems. The bamboo enclosure around the grave beneath the tree is similarly decorated. It is here that the mothers knelt and screamed as their hearts broke while soldiers swung their little babies by the feet and burst their skulls against the trunk of the tree. The mothers’ misery was short lived as it was their fate to follow their precious ones into the hole.

I slipped my hemp bracelet off of my wrist, the one with the sea glass blue bead that my friend made for me, and lay it over the fence. To remember their babies. In thanks for my own, and those of my friend who lovingly braided it for me. He’s a daddy. He would approve of the offering.

“Mom, I just found a jaw bone poking out of the earth,” Gabe whispers through black eyes, blank with the overwhelming dread we’re all feeling.


I just cry. All I can think of are the babies.

The giant stupha reaches for the sky like a fist shaken at god in anger. Inside are piled skulls, nine thousand or so, and bones.


Lunch is a solemn affair.

No one wants to talk, or eat really. Eventually questions are asked. We review Cambodia’s history. We discuss how this sort of thing happens. We discuss the importance of moderation in all things. We lament the losses.

We are incredulous at our role in the affair. You see, the USA backed Pol Pot’s regime after the Vietnamese finally helped topple him. We armed him. We encouraged him to come back to power. The genocide happened on President Carter’s watch, but it was Reagan’s administration that provided the funding and the weapons to the Khmer Rouge. The same administration supported the Guatemalan genocide. Our tax dollars at work, piled in macabre ivory mounds in the stupha.


Wouldn’t it be great if in real life we got happy endings?

There are no happy endings to this story, only continued suffering. You know how many of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge have been tried and convicted of war crimes? Exactly one. There are others still on or awaiting trial, but only a handful. Pol Pot himself lived into his ripe old eighties, married a second wife, enjoyed his grandchildren and died in the countryside near the border with Thailand where the Khmer Rouge still have hold outs. Meanwhile, an entire generation has post-traumatic stress disorder and, as Hannah pointed out, there are almost no grandparents to be seen. They were all murdered.

I wish there as a neat paragraph I could write to tie up loose ends and somehow make this all okay. Some funny quip I could make to make you smile and take the sting from the bracelets for the babies, but there is not. There are no happy endings.


Instead, I would ask that you learn and you teach your children, for that is the only way that the ghosts can be honored and the sins not repeated. 


We recommend the movie The Killing Fields as a good place to start. Don’t bother to make popcorn, you won’t want to eat it.

Read the story of Haing S. Ngor, the actor in the movie and himself a survivor of the genocide, he was murdered after appearing in the film, probably by the Khmer Rouge, their reach was long indeed.

Then read the book First They Killed My Father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers, by Loung Ung.  This girl was about my age when her family fled Phnom Penh and she tells it through her own child eyes.

Perhaps this post will be to harsh to read to your children, but find a way to teach them.

The only possibility for the redemption of any of this sort of senseless horror is in our children, and their children, learning from it, evolving past it, perhaps or at the very least avoiding the next genocide in their generation.