Visiting the Cheueng Ek Genocidal Center, popularly known as “The Killing Fields,” was a life changing experience for me. It’s one thing to hear the stories of the atrocities Pol Pot and
the Khmer Rouge committed in Cambodia. However, it is a whole different experience to walk the grounds where so many drew their last breath.
As you walk the now-peaceful trails in the memorial, you must step carefully around the fragments of bone and clothing that are still coming to the surface – especially during rainy season. When the monsoon rains wash the soil away, even more evidence appears of the people who lost their lives here.
The beautiful memorial stupa rises toward the sky in the center of the memorial. It is only
at second glance that I realized that this beautiful stupa is filled with layer upon layer of more than 5000 human skulls and many other bones. Many of the bones reveal evidence of being bludgeoned to death as the Khmer Rouge believed bullets to be too loud and too expensive.
A tree stands near a mass grave for women and children. It is covered with bracelets left in honor of the dead. Reading the placard I learned that this tree was used to beat babies to death. The soldiers would hold them by their feet and beat their heads against the tree until they died. Then their tiny bodies were tossed into a mass grave nearby.
As I held our 9 month old baby in my arms, I was struck with sadness and grief. Miss C giggled and babbled as we walked through, innocent to the atrocities which had taken place there.
Oh, how jealous I am of her innocence.
Growing up in the US, I heard very little about Cambodia in my school years. It was perhaps limited to some brief mention in the Vietnam War section of my U.S. History class. But, I knew nothing of the details. I did not know that my country had a hand in putting Cambodian people through such turmoil a mere 40 years ago.
As I walked through the blood-soaked grounds of this holy place, I wondered, “How do Cambodians view me?” Do they see my people as somewhat responsible for this act?
You see, it is easy for us to visit a place for a week and look at it as under-developed and backwards. It’s also easy to be paranoid about reports of theft and violent attacks on tourists. It’s oh so easy to judge.
But, you know what’s not easy? It’s not easy to carefully examine ourselves. It’s not easy to look at our biases and presuppositions. It’s not easy to realize that I have no idea what these people have been through.
I have a ridiculous amount of privilege based simply on where I was born and the color of my skin. I am free to travel the world for fun. My child will be able to attend great schools. These are things we take for granted. Yet, with such great privilege, how many times to I stand complacently by while so many nearby me are a victim of injustice? How many times do I fail to speak up in the face of injustice, or reach out a helping hand when I so easily could?
To say the least, this experience humbled me, and brought me to my knees.
To read more about the Killing Fields check out their website.
Note: On our blog we typically write about fun, family friendly travel destinations. This is not one of them. We took our 9 month old along, but I honestly would not recommend visiting the Killing Fields with young children. Not only is the place quite gruesome, but children would also be a disruption to the quiet and reflective nature of the memorial. If you plan to visit with mature, older children, be prepared for a possibly difficult discussion afterward.