A green environment, the black earth covered with grasses and herbs.. The branches of the large, fully grown trees reach for the blue sky and provide shade to cover against the burning sun. Some of the large pits in the uneven ground still contain water from the last rainshower, paths winding between them, emerged because of the many feet that passed over them. The sounds of the nearby city have vanished, the only sounds audible the screams of the birds in the small lake. The air smells fresh, clean and crisp, not being polluted by the exhaust fumes of the traffic. A rural idyll to linger around in.
An idyll it appears to be at first sight, but appearances are very deceptive here.
Spread over the grounds are tatched roofs above pieces of bare ground surrounded by bamboo sticks. At the entrance, in the midst of a manicured lawn, stands a new stupa. This is not a simple piece of nature where people come for a leisurely stroll. It is one of the Cambodian Killing Fields, places all over de country where the Khmer Rouge murdered people. Those pits in the grounds, some filled with water, are not natural holes or puddles but former mass graves from which the human remains have been unearthed.
The tatched roofs cover the graves that have a special story to them. One covers the largest grave, where 450 bodies were found, another covers a grave that contained only women and children. There is one also above a grave in which there were only bodies without heads. These were former Khmer Rouge soldiers who were suspected, rightly or wrongly, to have defected or to want to defect to the Vietnamese. They had lost their head…
Coloured bracelets have been attached to the bamboo sticks surrounding the graves. Khmer people believe these bracelets guard against evil spirits and prevent bad luck. They wear them around their wrists or tie them to the steer of their car. They also attach them to places where bad things happened or people died.
On the paths through the green you can still encounter the remains of clothes or even human bones. The rain uncovers them again after having been buried for a long time. Volunteers collect them on a regular basis so they can be kept in a decent way.
One tree is packed with coloured bracelets. Here the heads of babies and little children were, before the eyes of their mothers, smashed against the tree, an easy and cheap way to kill them. The philosophy of the Khmer Rouge, root out all the evil, meant that they didn’t kill individuals but whole families at the same time. At this place more than 20.000 people were killed. Not shot, bullets were much too expensive, but killed by brute force. Agricultural implements, bamboo sticks, hamers, everything that was sharp or heave could be used for that purpose.
Many Killing Fields have disappeared, returned to nature again. Not this one, it’s too close to Phnom Penh. It’s the best known Killing Field, Choeung Ek, not even 20 kms out of the centre of the city. The people that were murdered here had confessed their ‘crimes’ first. Not voluntarily but after being tortured, sometimes for months. Most of them were tortured in Tuol Sleng, the prison in the middle of Phnom Penh.
They were brought here in the middle of the night en were murdered the same night or the next. At other places victims of this kind of murder sometimes have been able to survive the killing by pretending they were dead. Not here. After the slaughtering the Khmer Rouge scattered DDT over the bodies. Anyone who wasn’t dead by then would die from it en moreover it prevented the decaying bodies from smelling.
8.995 of the victims have been unearthed, their skulls are piled up in the heart of the stupa.