I didn’t understand much about Cambodia’s civil war till coming to here, hearing locals’ stories, and reading a book on the subject. This may be the case for many westerners. Almost every Cambodian family lost family members to civil war and the Khmer Rouge. A cab driver told us about the day they took his brother. Another told of how they murdered his father. All in all, an estimated two million out of eight million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge, a previously marginal political group that managed to hijack the country in the 1970s. The justification for their actions was that they were trying to return Cambodia to an agrarian state, which was idealized in their philosophy. They were setting the clock back to the year zero, and getting rid of technology. Intellectuals, people with glasses, teachers, police, doctors, students, people who’d eaten chocolate or seen a movie, in short, anyone who wasn’t a farmer or factory worker; was deemed undesirable in this new society. These undesirables were ultimately killed, unless they could successfully masquerade as farmers.

"First They Killed My Father," a survivor’s autobiography, is a horrifying, yet typical personal account of the war. It’s also a great primer on what happened.


Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh is a high school converted to a prison by the Khmer Rouge; now it’s a museum. As we walked through it, it was hard to believe the sunny modernist school was the site of so many atrocities. Or that children’s exercise equipment was used for torture.


We walked through classrooms furnished only with old rusty misshapen beds, shackles, toolboxes, and other torture implements. Grainy photographs of the last victims found dead at the prison were on the walls. Victims  were tortured horribly at Tuol Sleng. In larger rooms, there were large grids of mugshots the Khmer Rouge took of their victims — women, men, children, babies, the elderly, sick people unable to lift themselves. The Khmer Rouge documented their crimes in a clinical manner like the Nazis.


In one room were piles of skulls, marred by bullet holes or bludgeoning. Sometimes people were bludgeoned to death when bullets were deemed too expensive.

But the Killing Fields of Choeung ek, several miles outside the city, is were where most of the prisoners were actually taken to be bludgeoned and buried in mass graves — sometimes alive. And these sites are only the largest and most notorious; Cambodia is littered with mass graves from the war.

There is a multi-level memorial stupa at the entrance to the Killing Fields, containing the bones of thousands of victims killed there. On the bottom level of the stupa is a lucite box of the victims’ clothing. At eye-level are piles of thousands of skulls. Several levels up are other kinds of bones.


The Killing Fields itself now looks like a sunny field pockmarked with old mortar shells. It’s truly hard to imagine people bludgeoning one another to death in this now peaceful place. It’s also hard to fathom how many of the killers are currently leading peaceful lives in Cambodia.