Thoughts from the Killing Fields

Imagine having your throat slashed by the razor sharp leaves of a tree so you can’t scream as you die.  Imagine that right before you are shot in the head and thrown into a ditch, you look to your left and see your one year old baby girl’s head slammed into a tree, her head exploding with blood and pieces of her brain flying in a million different directions.  And then imagine that your enemies aren’t infidels from another land, but your neighbors, your own people that are doing this to you.

I wish I exaggerated the above paragraph to bring shock value to this story.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  All of these things happened during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, from 1975 until the country was “liberated” by the Vietnamese in 1979.  The infamous leader of the Khmer Rouge was a man who went by the name Pol Pot.  His vision was to create a completely self sufficient agrarian society, one in which the country did not rely on outside influences at all.  Even in the late 1970’s, the world was becoming more intertwined through political struggles and trade agreements.  Needless to say, his ideas weren’t the brightest.  Pol Pot felt that the best way to implement his vision was to eliminate anyone that may oppose it, which meant any person that was involved with a different political party, and even more broadly, anyone who was educated.  You’re a doctor?  See ya.  You used to work for the previous government?  Bye bye.  You wear glasses?!  You must be smart.  See you in the afterlife.  It is estimated that close to 2 million people perished under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.  During this period, Cambodia had a population of approximately 8 million people… that is 25% of the population.  To put this in perspective proportionately, it would be the equivalent of approximately 75 million Americans being brutally murdered by their own people.  Just picture the states of New York, Texas and California being completely empty.

How does a culture come back from such a travesty, you may ask?  The first way is to understand what happened and to make sure it never happens again.  I recently had the chance to spend some time in this fascinating country.  Besides eating fried crickets and snakes and seeing Ankgor Wat and some of the most beautiful deserted beaches in the world, I had the opportunity to visit The Killing Fields and S-21 prison, both of which are located in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh.

S-21 was a school building that was transformed into a prison when the Khmer Rouge took control of the city.  At the height of its activity, about 100 prisoners were killed daily.  The guards would blast loud music throughout the day so people passing by the school wouldn’t hear the screams of those being brutally murdered.   As I roamed the halls of this horrific place, I learned that the people who were in charge of the murders are still on trial and are fighting for their freedom, over 30 years later… a sickening thought.

The Halls of S-21

Upon leaving S-21, I headed over to the “Killing Fields” which are about 9 miles from the city center.  Scanning over this peaceful place, it is hard to imagine that thousands of people died on these hallowed grounds, until you look down and see bones from mass graves that have come to the surface after the most recent rainy season.  In the middle of the fields is a large memorial stupa which holds the skulls of over 8,000 people that perished here.

A sign in the Killing Fields exhibit

After seeing the photos of the victims and hearing the terrible stories, it makes any warm blooded human want to do something to make things better.  The Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia is over… we can’t change the past.  But what we can do is impact the present and the future.  Unfortunately, there are terrible atrocities happening throughout the world that we, and our government , can help to eliminate.   It is our responsibility first and foremost to be educated about the world around us.  In this ever globalizing world, it is unacceptable and downright irresponsible for Americans to have their standard U.S. centric view.  The economic and political moves that our government makes affect the entire world (See the recent financial crisis), and it is up to us common folk to try to understand the implications of these decisions and use our collective influence to make the world a better place for us, but also for our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

Below are a list of web resources that document current issues and how we can learn more about them:

World without Genocide –

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn –


The CNN Freedom Project

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2 Responses to Thoughts from the Killing Fields

  1. Joan Robotham says:

    Your writing is getting better all the time. This reminds me of the time I was in Europe with your mother and Jackie, and Fran insisted that we needed to visit Dachau, the Nazi prison camp that has been preserved as a reminder that we should never let these things happen again. It would not have been my choice to go there. It was eerie and seemed haunted. But it stuck with me and in retrospect it was worth visiting. Unfortunately, these scenes seem to be continuing elsewhere.

  2. rjbennett1 says:

    Great story Joan. I agree… while there are better ways to spend a day in a foreign country than re-visiting atrocities, its important for us all be educated so that these things don’t continue to happen. Thanks for sharing your story with me!

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