Before leaving Cambodia for Vietnam, we stayed one more night in Phnom Penh as we still yet to take in the Genocide Memorial Centre, some 17km outside of the city.
Choeung Ek is popularly referred to as “The Killing Fields” (also the title of a 1984 Oscar-winning movie), though it is in fact only one of hundreds of mass-grave sites established by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror.
At this site alone, fields that were formerly orchards, became the place of execution for an estimated 17,000 prisoners of the Toul Sleng S-21 detention centre.
Visiting Choeung Ek was a logical closure of events after our earlier visit to S-21.
As you wander the grounds in silence, one can only imagine the horror and fear of those who were transported here in he dead of night, cuffed and blindfolded, awaiting what many must have realised was their end.
Dozens of mass graves lay like bomb craters across the undulating fields. As a result of the heavy rains this season, bones, teeth and clothing have broken through the soil and now lie scattered across a sparsely grassed surface exposed to the elements.
Every few months, a team clears the site of these remains and places them in a sanctified place.
89 separate mass-graves were discovered at the Choeung Ek site. These graves were disinterred in late 1980 and pictures of the exhumed skulls laid out in neat rows on the ground were broadcast by news organisations worldwide.
More than 8,000 bodies were exhumed from the graves before a decision was taken to leave the rest undisturbed.
At the base of a large tree, a sign reads “KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN”.
The Khmer Rouge were protective of their ammunition, so to avoid being wasteful it is said that many victims were beaten to death, the younger ones by repeatedly bashing heir skulls against this very tree.
As “The Boy” sits on a low kerb next to the killing tree, I am greatly disturbed to think that children as young, or even younger than him were murdered at this very spot in the name of building a communist agrarian society.
The centrepiece of the genocide cemtre is a towering memorial stupa housing the skulls of the deceased.
The stupa has plexiglass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. In a powerful gesture by the Cambodian Government, visitors can see the skulls directly and note how many have been shattered by traumas to the head.
Peering into the cases the skulls are dozens deep and stacked high. It is a surreal scene indeed.
Though the events that took place here were clearly horrendous, the mass scale of what I was witnessing made it far more difficult for me to absorb and assimilate the events than the tales of individual torture and cruelty as heard at S-21.
With estimates placed at around 20% of the population either being murdered or dying of starvation during the 3 year, 8 month and 21 day rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, it becomes difficult to compute how a society plunges to such sorrowful depths.
As Cambodia does its best to recover from the years of genocide, the victims still await justice through the court system.
To look at a 50-something year old Cambodian (they are few and far between as a proportion of the population), is to wonder if they were one of the killers.
The system created many such people, though to determine where the blame stops is not only a very difficult and slow process, but one which I suspect will continue to be obstructed until the killers and their seniors have themselves died of old-age and natural causes.
I also suspect that only then will this nation find true peace.