Farming the Killing Fields
“I came to join the revolution, not to kill the Cambodian people. Look at me now. Am I a violent person? No. So, as far as my conscience and my mission were concerned, there was no problem.” – Pol Pott, 1997.
On April 17th 1975 Saloth Sar, under his ‘revolutionary name’ of Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge stormed the city of Phnom Penn and seized control of Cambodia. The Red Khmer were famously brutal in their determination to enforce a policy that had been conceived completely in the abstract with absolutely no regard for its potential consequences and the certain loss of human life in its implementation. The forced evacuation of the city that day alone killed 100,000 people. Everyone, including the sick, elderly, handicapped and pregnant, was forced to leave. Many died while marching to the fields in which they were expected to aspire to be akin to a ‘revolutionary man’ and embrace a life of hard work and toil in their new utopian communist state. Those who resisted Pol Pott’s generous offer of a new life had theirs taken from them.
Most everyone would be appalled at the notion of the victims of Nazi Germany being forced to live in abject poverty next to a concentration camp, a site in which their family and friends were systematically slaughtered. It’s unthinkable. Yet, this has happened. The names and locations are different, but it has happened, and is still happening at this very moment. The old maxim; ‘change only the name and the story is about you’ is proven through the parallelism of the suffering of innocent people yet again.
Anyone deemed a threat to the revolution was killed. Most historians agree that roughly one third of the population of Cambodia was murdered by the sinister Saloth Sar and his army of brainwashed youths from the Cambodian countryside. There is a dispute as to whether 1, 2, or 3 million people were killed, as in many cases; there is simply no record of the victims’ lives left. The worst crime that the Khmer Rouge committed against hundreds of thousands of their own people is that now it is as though they never existed at all. One of the often unspoken horrors of genocide is the deletion of people’s stories from history. Not only are people killed, they’re erased.
Today the Phnom Penn genocide museum stands as a memorial not only to those who were systematically murdered at that very location, but also to all of those who suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Thousands of tourists a year come to pay their respects and to learn of the horrors of ‘the killing fields’. When walking around the genocide museum, while strolling from landmark to landmark listening to the audio tour on rented headphones and hearing the intricate details of the methods of murder utilized here a very short time ago (which included a ‘baby killing tree’, I shall leave the rest to your imagination, dear reader), one will more than likely be greeted by a hand or two protruding through the fence that surrounds the entire field. The sad reality of travelling in a poor country such as Cambodia is that money simply cannot be given to every person that asks for it, and often these hands are left empty. The irony that haunts the Phnom Penh genocide museum; the very people who discovered the mass graves in 1979 have been left in horrendous, poverty stricken living conditions next to the very place meant to be a commemoration to their suffering.
There are still an estimated 20 undiscovered mass graves in the area surrounding the genocide museum. Upon the resting places of an unknown amount of people sit the homes of around 200 families. Nearby, inside the museum, the horrifying constructions that housed those waiting to be killed are no longer there. This is because they were destroyed by those who first encountered them, and the remnants of them used to build many of the houses that still stand in this small village today. The contentment of these families presents one with a startling realisation; every moment of happiness that these people feel is literally surrounded by death.
The first families that arrived had no notion of the extent of the crimes that were committed in the area in which they were to make their homes, ‘When we first came here, the smell was terrible; we thought it was a landfill’. Originally from the Takéo province, an area notorious for torture under Pol Pott; Mambon is a seventy year old woman and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia. She walks quite slowly, and is facing health problems, however cannot afford to see a doctor. For a woman that is quite ill and for whom medical treatment is not an option, her temperament is surprisingly robust, and she laughs as we tell her that her appearance is not indicative of her years. Her family farm rice and other vegetables, keep what they need for themselves to eat, and sell the rest in a local market; this is their livelihood. It is a very difficult life, but much improved from existence under the Khmer Rouge, ‘It was very bad working during the Khmer Rouge period. Everyone had to do very long hours of manual labour, and we were all so tired because we were hardly fed at all. Once I ate a live crab that happened to cross my path, because I was so hungry. Many people did this. We had to be careful though, because the Khmer Rouge would beat you or kill you if you were caught.’ Those that didn’t live up to the Stakhanovite standards set were punished severely ‘often when it rained and the fields flooded I saw the blood of other people.’ Although the Cambodian people are no longer at the barrel of a gun, when presented with conditions such as this, one must wonder to what degree the threat of death and starvation has been reduced.
Her home is a small one room shack which is house to all of the possessions she has acquired in her lifetime; her life’s wealth in a room. A large hard surfaced bed takes up the majority of the house. Upon first viewing, it becomes glaringly apparent that feng sui and the pursuit of the perfect IKEA kitchen are concepts that these people will never grapple with. Farming tools, eating utensils and items of clothing are indifferent to prioritization; whatever can find space in between her 4 walls and roof is protected from the elements. Poverty renders presentation redundant.
Bonry and Paea’s house is observable through the fence from inside the genocide museum. They are also farmers, and are of the few in the village fortunate enough to have livestock, although quite often when they leave, their animals are stolen by other villagers. Their son runs around, unaware of the area’s sinister history, as I speak with them. The one thing that everyone remembers upon first coming here is the smell, ‘we discovered this wasn’t a landfill when my cattle began grazing. A cow’s hoof became lodged in the ground, maybe a foot down, and when we finally pulled it out, that’s when we discovered the bodies’. Patrons of the museum glance at the squalor in which this family live as they visit the allocated spots on their tour. The thin line that exists between a public memorial and the commodification of a national tragedy becomes all the more apparent when one witnesses the treatment of its victims by those that profess to be honouring them.
Nearby begging by the fence is a man named Dol. Dol is one of the countries innumerable landmine victims. As a result of its incredibly violent history, Cambodia has more active landmines than any other country in the world. Unable to work, Dol makes his living and supports his 5 children through begging. Two of his children, far too young to ask strangers for money, run around the vicinity of their father playing games and laughing, indifferent to their Father’s daily humiliation.
Although they have been living in the same location for over 30 years, these families still do not own their land. They have no property rights. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the current government in Cambodia, (which is currently led by a man named Hun Sen, an at best shady character that obtained his position as Prime Minister in an incredibly dubious election) is currently in the process of evicting them. Within the next 12 – 24 months, the small village inhabited by those that discovered ‘the killing fields’ will be demolished by a government that is increasingly participating in audacious and shameless acts of land theft from its own people. The location to which these people will be moved has yet to be disclosed; although the villagers have been assured that conditions will be wonderful. Like homosexuality in Western civilisation during the first half of the 20th century, corruption in Asian politics is best described as an ‘open secret’. Present in Cambodian political life is a pretence of honesty and transparency, which is puzzlingly perpetuated by both the Rulers and the ruled. However, once prodded even slightly, this facile facade crumbles like all other feeble untruths in public discourse.
Most haunting of all are the smiles of the people I speak to. History has branded the people of this small village with an inferiority complex that is both nauseating and endearing; while tragically they have accepted the horrendous oppression and exploitation at the hands of the CPP, their prostration has enabled them to truly enjoy the few pleasures of life available to them. We gather our things and leave the village in possession of an invitation to come back and visit when we return to Cambodia in the future. Hopefully we’ll be visiting the same friendly faces.
Text by Paul Doyle with photographs by David Greene.