Survival in the Killing Fields

This autobiography sums up the chaos that was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and to an extent, what still happens in Cambodia. I’ve read a few autobiographies of the Khmer Rouge years, and this one hits me the hardest. It makes you depressed, and more importantly, makes you appreciate the life you are living now.

killing fields

Haing S. Ngor was made famous by acting as Dith Pran in the 1984 film The Killing Fields – a role which won Ngor an Oscar. Dith Pran’s story is a famous one, it’s horrific and upsetting what he experienced under the Pol Pot regime. Ngor’s account takes this feeling to a whole new level.

This book definitely isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s heartbreaking and horrowing. There are graphic descriptions of torture and murder, of disease and starvation, of crimes against humanity both within the Khmer Rouge and outside (including the rape of women by Thai soldiers as they try and escape Cambodia, and the mass killing of Cambodian refugees in Thailand). The description is so vivid you can almost smell the death of the people around him.

Ngor doesn’t just describe his own personal suffering, he describes Cambodia’s suffering. He writes what he witnesses. His personal accounts of being tortured (which happened on numerous occassions) also describe how others were treated. Not many autobiographies of the Khmer Rouge do this, for example, Denise Affonco’s  To The End of Hell, which describes only the author’s suffering and feelings of starvation. It’s quite a tedious read as Affonco doesn’t even describe in detail her own children’s death and as a result doesn’t generate the same emotional response as Survival in the Killing Fields.

Haing S. Ngor not only gives an account of what happens to his life during the Pol Pot regime, he also disusses the culture and most importantly, the politics of Cambodia before, during and after the regime.  The book can easily be split into two sections: Ngor’s life before, during and after the regime; and what happened to Khmer citizens before, during and after the regime. The book is a mini contemporary history of Cambodia and you can begin to understand the political workings of a nightmare.

The Khmer Rouge regime is incredibly fascinating and raises certain questions: why didn’t the West intervene? We knew what was happening in the country, yet there was no international discussion about how to solve the problem. This wouldn’t happen today – Syria being the prime example. Ngor doesn’t blame anyone for events happening in his country. All his anger is directed at the Khmer Rouge, to those who tortured him and others, to those who brought the Cambodian people suffering and death.


Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields

Ngor’s memoirs conclude with his own death.  Roger Warner (the co-author) describes in an epilogue what happens after Ngor won an Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields and he ends describing Ngor’s death in 1996 and the mystery surrounding it.

There is a happy ending however. Since his death a charity, Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation  was founded, which provides aid to the people of Cambodia.

Survival in the Killing Fields is a book everyone should read, and no one should forget.

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

I have recently been re-reading the diary I kept whilst travelling in Cambodia in 2010. It’s not often that I forget chilling events and goings-on when talking to people and visiting places. What happened in Cambodia however, was very nearly forgotten and upon re-reading I was able to remember and appreciate just exactly how lucky I am.

My diary is 30 pages long, but I have condensed it down for the purpose of this blog. This first post focuses on S-21 and the Killing Fields.

26th November

It was easily one of the most depressing days of my life. Why? Because I visited S-21 and The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

S-21 is utterly bizarre. It’s located on a normal street, with cafés and homes opposite. The site itself was surreal; despite it being gorgeously hot, it felt cold and oppressive. I hired a female guide who before taking me around explained what she lived through in the Khmer Rouge years. She told me that she and her family were forced to leave Phnom Penh when she was six. They were told to walk south towards the Vietnamese boarder, on the way her father was killed for being a former Lon Nol soldier. They reached a village where they were told they would only be for three days before being allowed back to the capital. But she ended up staying for a year. Her older brother and sister, being children and not understanding, tried to get more food. They were shortly taken away from their mother and were killed. A couple of months later my guide, now 7, left with her mother at night and escaped over the Vietnamese boarder where they made way to a refugee camp full of other Cambodians. She said it was one the most terrifying journeys ever; never knowing if they were going to be caught and killed. She went back when the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and resettled in Phnom Penh. She said she has no idea where her father, brother and sister are buried and cannot visit their graves to pay her respects.

She pointed out the graves of the last people who were killed in S-21. Apparently, they were killed in a rush of panic –the Vietnamese were coming so the Khmer Rouge were desperately trying to run and hide. She took me into the first block; the classrooms were split with makeshift walls. The rooms were roughly the size of a double bed, they had no doors, and some still had blood smeared up the walls. Chains and cuffs were nailed to the floor. She explained that everything has been left untouched in memory to those who died there. These rooms were where the prisoners stayed before being tortured and killed. Two or more were in the same room. One room we went in still had some torture equipment in the centre and photographs on the wall.

The final block was full of other torture equipment they found and of photographs. Every single prisoner had their photograph taken upon entry. There are children, women, babies and men. There were also paintings. My guide explained that one of the S-21 survivors is an artist and he painted them after he left. They were graphical and showed the torture he witnessed whilst in S-21 – including babies being murdered and women being raped. My guide went through how each piece of equipment was used. One room had a large wooden table with chains on. It was used to help torture the women. They were tied down, raped and mutilated (mainly their breasts were cut off).

S-21: The wire stops the prisoners from committing suicide

S-21: The wire stops the prisoners from committing suicide

Finally I was shown some more photographs, however, these were the ones of the Khmer Rouge who worked in S-21, and my guide picked out the faces of those who were now in prison or had died before going to prison. But I noticed that some of them she ignored and I asked her what happened to them. My guide went a bit pale and took me into an empty side room and asked me again if I really wanted to know, and I said I did. She started off by saying I was the first person who has ever asked about them(!). And she told me that what she is about to say is illegal, that if she is overheard criticising the politics of her country that she would be taken away and would never see her children again, but that she would tell me because it was important to tell someone. She told me that those people were given protection by the government as they had friends in high places, including the prime minister Hun Sen, and a few were even given jobs within the government which angered a lot of the people.

She went on to explain that nothing has really changed in Cambodia – the Khmer Rouge have gone but behind closed doors it was the same as usual. People were still being taken away and never seen of again. People aren’t allowed to speak their minds and protest against what’s being done in government. That the ‘foreigners’ came in the 1990s and didn’t really change a thing, except send Pol Pot into hiding, and replaced him with a dictator who was a former Khmer Rouge soldier. Journalists aren’t even are allowed to report the corruption that’s going on in their government. In NGOs there are senior figures who monitor what’s going on to make sure nothing too incriminating gets published. She said the ‘foreigners’ had introduced other problems including HIV and that violence had only got worse, that now you know longer knew who to trust. People were scared of putting a finger out of line.

She was in tears and when she was ranting she kept looking at the door. I can’t even imagine what she’s seen and she was clearly trying to keep the rant as short as possible but at the same time you could tell she wanted to say more. She quickly left, bowed and asked if I was visiting the Killing Fields next. She then told me I could take photographs around S-21 and upstairs there was a documentary being shown.

After S-21 I left for the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The complex is quite large, and only some of the mass graves have been excavated. Outside there are landmine amputees begging for money.

You are free to tour the Killing Fields how you please. I worked my way clockwise starting at the memorial stupa. It was surrounded by Japanese tourists who were taking cheesy, happy-smiley, posing with their fingers in the ‘v’ sign and laughing inside the stupa which is filled with skulls of Khmer Rouge victims and displayed according to age and sex. What the tourists were doing made me feel incredibly sick. They didn’t even take their shoes off, and being Japanese I thought it would’ve been natural for them to do so. Tourists were expected to be respectful (obviously) and lay down white flowers and incense and take a few moments to pay their respects. Cambodian families also often visit to do the same, many go because they don’t know where their family are buried and feel the need to pay respects somewhere. The Japanese were clearly being anything but respectful.

There were signs everywhere telling people to mind the mass graves and not to walk in them. Some were fenced off, including a grave that around 166 bodies which were found decapitated. There were also signs explaining the significance of some objects, including trees. There was a tree that babies were killed against (one of the paintings in S-21 showed a baby being held by one ankle and thrown against the tree with force, killing it). There was also a sign by a building which apparently housed chemicals which were poured over the graves to burn off any remaining survivors and to mask the smell of rotting flesh.

At the end of the trail there was a mini museum with information on the Killing Fields, Pol Pot and S-21. It explained that there were over 300 of these sites around the country.

The Killing Fields