Some 3 million people died in the killing fields of the Cambodian genocide.
Few horrors compare to the killing fields of the Cambodian genocide.
Over four short years, from 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge systematically exterminated up to 3 million people. The people of Cambodia had to live in fear, knowing that they might be the next one dragged out to the killing fields. The chances of being chosen were indeed high – by the end of the massacre, the Khmer Rouge had wiped out nearly 25 percent of the population.
The nightmare began in Phnom Penh, with the end of the Cambodian Civil War. It was the last stronghold of the right-wing, military-led Khmer Republic, and with its fall, Cambodia came into the hands of the dictator Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge regime.
When the Khmer Rouge emerged from the civil war victorious and marched down the streets, thousands of terrified people fled, some rushing for the border with Thailand while others flooded the gates of the French Embassy.
The massacres soon began and the Cambodian genocide was underway. The fighters who had stood up against the Khmer Rouge were executed en masse. Then the Khmer Rouge turned on civilians, driving the people into the countryside and killing thousands in the process.
Soon, the Khmer Rouge was rounding up anyone who did anything that could be seen as capitalist. Selling a product or talking to anyone from the world beyond Cambodia’s borders was treated like an act of treason. Those caught were sent to so-called re-education camps like Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, a fate that nearly always meant getting tortured and killed.
Adults were forced to dig their own graves before they were slaughtered with spades and sharpened bamboo. Their children, meanwhile, were smashed to death against the trunks of trees and thrown into the mass graves where their parents lay.
There were more than 150 of these execution centers across the country. One of the most brutal, Tuol Sleng, was a former school that transformed into a factory of death. About 20,000 people ended up locked inside of its walls – and only seven got out alive.
The massacres on the killing fields stopped when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and brought an end to the Khmer Rouge. As the Vietnamese marched through Cambodia, they found places like Tuol Sleng. They uncovered mass graves full of thousands of human remains – and found photos of some of the many people who had been lost in the Cambodian genocide.