Saturday, April 09, 2011

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Cambodia post.

A continuation of my super delayed Cambodia travelogue. Just in the mood to blog about my Cambodia trip tonight, perhaps because I just booked myself a flight to Laos. (I know you might be wondering whats the connection, but well thinking of going backpacking reminds me of backpacking in Cambodia, so yeah) Most of the world recognizes Cambodia as a third world country, as one of the poorest country in the world currently. But I think it is more important that we recognize the atrocities that took place during the Khmer Rouge regime resulting in them being as underdevelop as they are today.

After visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum (S21 prison), Napich then brought us to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center also known as the 'Killing Field' situated some 15 km from Phnom Penh city. The Choeung Ek killing field is closely related and is the second most important part of the larger S21 prison. The road to there is pretty dusty hence we were really lucky to have Napich to drive us there and fill us in on the history.

Just a brief intro on Choeung Ek, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center today is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa and a historical museum for humankind to preserve the evidence of the cruelty and barbaric homicides during the ultra communist Khmer Rouge regime.

It looks so serene and peaceful now but just imagine all the horror, fear, despair and brutality that had took place here just some four decades ago.

Choeung Ek was a former orchard and later on a Chinese graveyards before it was converted into a killing field and mass burial site during the Khmer Rouge regime. Some special and important prisoners such as their then ministers and revolutionary veterans were killed straight at Tuol Sleng while some other 'selected' prisoners regardless of age, gender and nationality from the prison were trucked in batches; blindfolded, hands tied to their back and in silence to this place to be killed.

The majority of the victims were trucked out to Choeung Ek, at about 8 or 9 o’clock pm, to be killed. The guards took the prisoners from their cells to the main gate where a large truck waited and told them that they were being transferred to another place. This lie was created to prevent the prisoners from crying, refusing to go or from escaping.  In order to be well prepared for execution, a messenger from the defense unit was sent to the Choeung Ek Killing Field in advance to inform a permanent team about the number of the prisoners to be killed that day. (source taken from To read more about about the history, the killing process and all about Choeung Ek, click here)

After Cambodia was liberated from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the mystery of Choeung Ek was discovered (it was a top secret previously). A total of 129 graves were discovered, 86 of which were excavated. Close to 9000 corpses were exhumed and a memorial stupa was built to serve as a lasting reminder of the Khmer Rouge period and the terror that these victims went through. It also serves as a memorial where Buddhist funeral rites can be performed to allow the spirits of the deceased a more peaceful passage to the afterlife.

As we walked around the whole place, everything from the Khmer Rouge regime seems in place as they were. Aside from the memorial stupa, we also saw the graves where the corpses were exhumed, the detention centres, the killing trees, ruins of Chinese style tombs, the conservation dyke and the truck stop, all of which sent jabs of sorrow to my heart as Napich narrated the horrendous bitter events that had once unfold there.
The mass graves now covered in grass.
Rags of the victims clothes. After the corpses were exhumed, the underground rags of the victims clothes were washed up after rain and they were collected to keep on.
This mass grave once buried more than 100 women and children. Majority of the victims were naked when they were exhumed.
Another mass grave where victims found here were without head.
See if you can spot anything on the ground.
Pieces of human bones and teeth are still constantly being washed up by the rain. Actually as one walk around the whole area, if you look hard enough, you'll surely see bits of bones or teeth littering the site.
This is known as the 'magic' tree. Actually, this is the tree where two loudspeakers were placed playing revolutionary songs as the execution took place to drown out the moans and cries of the victims as they were killed. It was a smart trick played by the merciless murderers to prevent the noise from the dying victims to escape out to soldiers growing rice nearby the killing field.

Secrecy was central to the security system so much so that the prisoners were not allowed to talk or associate with each other, blindfolded and hands bounded to their back. It's so heartbreaking to even think that these people never knew where they were kept, where they were killed, what's happening during the last hours of their life, who killed them or who died with them. The brutal and merciless murders took place here day after day during the regime, without the world having a single clue about it because they hid it so well. It was said that they even poured some kind of chemicals over the victims to eliminate the stench from the corpses.
The killing tree. Babies and children prisoners were held by their legs and their heads smashed against the tree. *shudders even at the imagination of it*
The memorial stupa where more than 5000 skulls are place. Visitors can pay their respects to the victims of the genocide here.
May all of these souls rest in peace now.
Crack lines indicating fractures on their skulls. It is said that they were clubbed on the neck with tools such as cart axle, hoe, wooden club or whatever else that serves as weapon of death. They were sometimes stabbed by knives or slit on the throats. Bullets were rarely used as they were expensive. 

Duch (former notorious Khmer Rouge prison chief) said: “We had instructions from the party on how to kill them, but we didn’t use bullets and usually, we slit their throats. We killed them like chickens” ( Dunlop 2005:273)

The ride to death. This is where the truck carrying those frightful prisoners stopped to unload them.
We also visited the museum to learn more about the happenings at Choeung Ek and to look at more of the evidences on display.
Clothes and 100% rubber shoes worn by men and women back then.
We are glad though that this nightmare is over and Cambodia is a lovely and peaceful country now.
I personally felt that a visit to both Tuol Sleng genocide museum and Choeung Ek genocide center is a must to everyone visiting Cambodia. Even though we all can read about the dark history from books or from the internet, but being there, seeing with my own eyes the prison beds, the blood stains, the cells, the graves, the murder weapons etc certainly gives rise to a sense of deja vu. Such evidence of cruelty is definitely a good reminder to the world that we do not need such repetitions. I still find it sad  and hard to believe that one human being can actually do such a brutal and barbaric act onto another human being and still able to sleep in peace at night. How is it that these murderers don't get haunting images of their helpless victims or resounding moans of death in their sleep?

Even though all of these had took place more than 40 years ago, but the Cambodians are still living the remnants from the regime. I wasn't even born when all of these took place, but being there, hearing and seeing it is enough to break my heart, what's more those that had live through and had families exterminated by Pol Pot and his brothers at that time. Most of the Khmer Rouge leaders were being caught after the regime ended but Pol Pot, the ruthless communist leader behind the Khmer Rouge regime had passed away while under house arrest in 1998. Duch, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison chief had been sentenced to 35 years imprisonment recently after a series of trial. Seriously, I know I had no right to judge but I felt that even though Cambodia has no death sentence ruling, 35 years is too light of a sentence to someone who was responsible for interrogation and execution of a minimum of more than 14000 people. Nonetheless, I hope this verdict could at least measure some justice to the victims and their families. And I pray that all of these victims will be able to rest in peace now. :)

Best Blogger Tips

6 fondue dips :

yah . . . hmmm may the soul rest in peace too.

That was so cruel if Imagine the things u had written up . . .

I think I saw these on TV show that visiting some other place in Cambodia.

I think got more huh?

Kian Fai : Yes it is so cruel. You'll feel even more sad when you see pictures of what happen at that time that they display at their museums.

Ya, I think got more also. :)

alamakx... my legs went wobbly at the skulls pic! i rarely visit museums coz of some eerie feelings i get inside.. macam Night at the Museum :P

Merryn : Haha.. in broad daylight, still ok. I think not as eerie as if go at night since most part of the center is actually open air!

GOSH! am not sure if i dare to come visit this place. :(

Caroline : In broad daylight not scary at all the place. Hehe :)