Confronting the Killing Fields

It’s 1978. Star Wars is thrilling movie goers, Jimmy Carter is dealing with an oil crisis, and the Bee Gees are singing “Staying Alive.” My sister is three years old, I’m a year from birth, and my parents are happily married in Louisville, Kentucky.

At the same time, outside a nearly deserted capital city in Cambodia, a mature oak tree stands in a sunny field. The morning silence is broken by covered trucks rumbling slowly into view along a red dusty road. Teenagers wearing black shorts and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes jump out of the cab. The child soldiers open the truck gates and escort bound and blindfolded men, women, and children from a rusty bed. The prisoners are hollow-eyed and listless wearing tattered blood stained clothes. They line up and the soldiers grab several babies from their mothers’ arms. The mothers protest, the children wail, and the guards walk briskly to the gnarled oak tree. Grabbing the babies by their legs, one by one, they are swung head first onto the trunk of the tree. Chinese marching music plays on portable speakers to muffle their mothers’ screams.

Thirty years later Cortney and I are standing in front of this same tree. We are at the infamous “Killing Fields” outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A large stupa has been erected in the middle of the grounds. It houses over 2000 human remains, including skulls with bullet holes and cracks that reveal the nature of how each of the nameless died. So much killing was done in this place that the grounds are still littered with remains. Human bones poke up through the earth and remnants of clothing emerge from the ground after each rain storm.

The most sobering fact; this is not the only place that such atrocities occurred. From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot and his ruthless Khmer Rouge regime wreaked havoc and destruction throughout their home country of Cambodia. From a population of only 8 million, an estimated 2 million died in the fields from starvation and exposure. Almost a quarter of the population.

Ten kilometers from these fields, within the capital city, sits a common building complex where most of these deceased prisoners were held. The location is called SL-21. Originally a primary school, after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on September 25 1975, it was turned into a prisoner camp and house of torture. Almost all the residents of the city were pushed into the country side to work in the fields “rebuilding” the country in a warped vision that had roots in communism, economic inequalities, and pure ignorance. Child soldiers from the jungle were in charge. Barely able to read and write they began by imprisoning and interrogating the elite; almost obliterating the few lawyers, doctors, and intellectuals left in Cambodia. Soon, paranoia took over and the leaders were capturing and killing their own. Guards who were the torturers were now the tortured.

The prison remains the same as the day it was abandoned when the Vietnamese fired their way through in late 1979. Shackles still hold firm to the floor and rusty beds stand as a reminder of the poor souls who spent their last days writhing upon them. Writing is scratched on the walls and blood can be spotted on the broken tile floors. The only addition to the prison are hundreds of photos, from the Khmer Rouge, of hundreds of prisoners who were held and ultimately died at the prison. Far too many are of children.

Amongst all the scenes of suffering and cruelty, the hardest thing to understand is the question of why. The history is complicated but the answer can basically be defined as, “there is no clear answer.” Fighting and violence continued for another 20 years until it was finally quelled in the late 1990s, but the society is still very much recovering.


Today, Phnom Pehn is a bustling capital city along the Mekong river. The streets are dotted with magnificent gold temples and open air parks. At dusk crowds gather in the parks to dance in groups to hip hop, salsa, pop music and jazzercise. Children sell knock-off guide books to tourists. Laundry service is 4000 riel a kilo and can be ready in half a day. We even took a moto out to an animal reserve with gibbons, tigers, and other endangered species. Things have certainly changed since those dark days in the late 70′s.

But the scars of a brutal war run very deep and will not, nor should not, be forgotten. For these two tourists, the memory will hauntingly persist.

If you would like to learn more about the Kmher Rouge and Cambodias tumultuous past, there are several very good books and films. Cortney and I read a heart wrenching memoir called "Survival in the Killing Fields." Most people know the author, Hang Ngoir, by his academy award winning role as a lead character in the 1984 movie, “The Killing Fields.”

For the next several weeks, we would continue to hear first hand stories of the war. It’s incredible that such a horrible thing happened in our lifetime but the sad truth is that similar attrocities continue to happen in places like Rwanda and Darfur. We plan on being much more outspoken in the future. No society should go through such sufferings while we, luckily, live such comfortable lives at home.