Day 2 B: The cost of history

For lunch we went to this place called “Daughters Café”. This is a café run by the NGO Daughters of Cambodia. ( Daughters of Cambodia empowers victims of sexual exploitation to set themselves free from the sex industry in Cambodia and change their lives. It is an IJM partner organization and provides skills training for other vocations: cooking and hospitality, retail, sewing, woodworking, jewelry making, lotions and soaps. Our IJM host, “Allisa”, called our outing “eating for a cause”. Yup. All over that.


And then it was off to the very sobering Killing Fields- specifically the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre.

Choeung Ek is the largest killing field with over 70,000 bodies buried there. It is located about 15km south east of Phnom Penh. It is a memorial site. There is a 19 stop audio tour to take in as you walk around the area. Each stop is described with additional listening in between for further information on related topics- like the history of Pol Pot or the use of music to drown out the killings. We didn’t have enough time to listen to each session but it was long enough.

As we arrived, the dark afternoon clouds were rolling in. For me, this was the perfect atmosphere to take in this deeply disturbing location. A bright sunny day would have felt trite. With the dark clouds came wind and eventually a down pour. It matched the stirring emotions in my soul and spirit.


You walk down a lane to the Memorial Stupa “where the remains of Choeung Ek’s victims are reverently preserved”. This means that there is a large tower with literally thousands of skulls in it which you can see through the glass walls. Skulls and bones and pieces of clothing. There are 17 levels to the tower and on the first 9 levels there are 9000 skulls- all the skulls have been classified according to the way the person was killed- machete, club, bullet, etc. Death by bullet was rare because bullets were considered too expensive to waste…


It was impossible to take notes, hold an umbrella, take photos and hold the audio player at the same time. Just as well. I can’t digest all the info anyway. Thankfully there was a brochure. Each time the number says “Sign” it is referring to a sign that had info on it but that marked the spot where either people were sent to line up before being killed or where a building once stood. Here are the 19 headings…

  1. Intro and walk to stop 2. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge march into Phnom Penh, 17th April 1975.
  2. Sign; Truck Stop
  3. Sign: Dark and Gloomy Detention
  4. Sign: The Executioner’s Working Office
  5. Former Chinese Ceremonial Kiosk
  6. Sign: Chemical Substances Storage Room
  7. Mass grave: 450 victims
  8. Sign: Killing tools Storage Room, How people ewere killed
  9. Chinese Grave. Bones and Teeth Fragments
  10. Longan Orchard. People worked to death by Angkar
  11. Walk on path by lake: Music an dMemoreis
  12. Survivor stories- may be heard anywhere at any time on the walk
    1. Loss of an infant
    2. Witness to a killing
    3. Rape leads to shame
    4. One man’s story
    5. The first day, forced to leave home
    6. In the village, his cousin killed in front of him
    7. Anger, isolation, his mother’s dream, hope
    8. Arrested and beaten; saved by a stranger’s sacrifice
    9. Escapes to America, returns for revenge, healing
  13. Mass Grave: 166 Victims without heads
  14. Glass box: Victims’ clothing
  15. The Killing Tree
  16. Glass Box: Victims’ Bones and Teeth
  17. The Magic Tree
  18. Memorial Stupa: Design and Meaning of the Stupa
  19. Farewell “Oh Phnom Penh”.


Mass graves. Ok. So I was prepared for the history because I have read up on Cambodia, I have met survivors of the killing fields, I have processed in my imagination what I have learned. I was not prepared for it to be an experience where my 5 senses would be affected. Seeing the concave earth of mass graves is one thing, haunting and disturbing… smelling them is another. You can still smell the decaying bodies- because they are still decaying. You can taste decay in the air. It feels like the air is landing on you. I wanted to wash it off. You are hearing the stories and if you wanted to, which I didn’t, you can touch the trees where babies heads were beaten, the leaves that were used to slice people, the boxes that hold remains. Regardless, you are walking on ground that is groaning in sorrow.

Mass gravesIMG_3767

The hardest for me was hearing and then seeing that skull fragments, teeth and clothing get unearthed during heavy rains and flooding. As in, they specifically ask you to not pick up the pieces of bone that may be at your feet as you walk down the path. Hearing that turned my stomach. Seeing fabric coming out of the earth and seeing hard things in the ground and realizing they were skull bits was… nauseating, horrific, deeply disturbing. So very real. So very recent.

How does a country pick up and keep going after a genocide?

It is so striking to be here experiencing this within the same week that I was meeting, introducing and listening to Immaculee Ilibagiza. To hear her speak on her experience in Rwanda and the choice she had to make to be either on the side of hate or the side of love… and that the side of love means to choose forgiveness…

As we drive around Phnom Penh, I am struck that there seem to be so few people over the age of 40. When I do the math, it is striking to look at the continuing impact the Pol Pot regime of Khmer Rouge had…

Pol Pot took over on April 17, 1975. His reign ended in 1979. If you were born in 1975, you turn 37 this year. Pretty tough to survive the Killing Field years as a baby… and if a baby born at this time did survive, it was certainly a malnourished baby. If you were born in 1980 or later, you may have avoided the Killing Field years but your parents have a story of survival. If you were 20 in 1975, you are now 57. If you were 10 years old, you are now 47.

Think of the implications of that. Age 0 – 20 at the start of the regime = age 37 –57 now. How many of the people age 37 – 57 are now parents or even grandparents? Likely many. If you witnessed people being killed and tortured, if you survived somehow, it is impossible for those experiences to not massively continue to shape your worldview.


How does this worldview shape attitudes around prostitution, human trafficking, child sexual exploitation? How does the worldview influence parenting, community, education?

On the back of the brochure it reads:

“Choeung Ek is the most well known of over 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia. You may want to visit the following websites: Khmer Rouge Tribunal; Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program; and Cambodia Tribunal Monitor

I would add that you may also want to read an outstanding novel, Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing.” -Sir Edmond Burke.


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