I love reading true crime stories as well as fictional novels. I also write about them.
My charity, The Sunlight Foundation, is passionate about stamping out the vile sex trade of children in Cambodia. Having visited many places in Cambodia and seen the heroic work of several charities, I know first-hand about the grinding poverty that feeds the sex trafficking of children. The hardest question for me was “Why?” Why do mothers sell their children’s virginity? Why is Cambodia the centre of this monstrous crime?
For my journey, it was important for me to try and answer these questions for myself. They’re not hard to find and go back to the dark years of the 1970s. Many of us might remember the movie The Killing Fields made in 1984, and awful as it was, it was a true crime story – a movie – made about a land most of us knew little about. I was just across the Bassac River border in Vietnam at the time, in another war, so heard and saw much myself.
Yes, there is a real Killing Field. As a matter of fact, there are 300 scattered across Cambodia. The one I walked in back then was at Choeung Ek village, only a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh, the capital. It was the most hellish place I’ve ever visited. Not dangerous, just ghastly. I was determined; many people run away in horror and disbelief. I believe everyone should visit this place.
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was one of history’s most genocidal regimes and over four years in the 1970s, they killed a third of Cambodia’s population under a Mao-inspired vision to create a rural society. Education, technology, and independent thought were banned. People were sent to work in brutal labour camps, and millions died of starvation or beatings. Those viewed as a risk were taken away: doctors, lawyers, monks, teachers, children in school – anyone with an education or hands not calloused by work, were tortured and killed. In less than four years, the religious, cultural, educational and professional lifeblood was erased from Cambodia. It was called “Year Zero”. It has not yet been rebuilt.
The Killing Field is benign these days, I would say even supernatural. Chickens peck in the dust, but the silence is overpowering. People talk in whispers, respectful of the 17,000 ghosts that can be sensed all around. Trees are spreading over the meandering dirt paths between the lawns, offering shade from the oppressive heat. The lawns look like bombs had exploded, but are where the mass graves were opened. A lotus pond lies at the corner of the field, like a place lovers might even enjoy a picnic, and I wondered how such a dissonant sight could possibly exist.
I passed by the mass graves, the remains of holding rooms, of toolsheds destroyed by Cambodians after Pol Pot was overthrown. The sign beside me said this used to be the place where prisoners waited their turn to be executed. I tried to imagine what those people might have been thinking.
There is a large, gnarled tree on the path with spreading branches and roots like tentacles where many people stop. It’s called the Magic Tree. This was where the guards would hang speakers blasting loud music to drown out the victims’ cries so neighbouring villagers wouldn’t hear.
I heeded the advice to keep to the path because each rainy season more bones, clothes, and personal items get washed to the surface and are collected respectfully by the caretakers. There was another tree, decorated in colourful friendship bracelets. There is a sign. It says: “Killing tree against which executioners smashed children’s heads” more harrowing because of the grammar. The trunk was still pierced by skull fragments. I thought I was going to be sick.
A magnificent glass-windowed stupa was in the centre of the Killing Field. It is a tower where hundreds upon hundreds of skulls and bones reach the sky and a window into the worst of true crime stories. They were the people from the mass graves, their skulls showing how they were killed: clubs, hatchets, chemicals, garden hoes, heads beaten against trees. The stupa was claustrophobic, trapping me between the tower of skulls and the outside world. I looked up and when I saw how high the tower was, I wanted to get out from being surrounded by death and tragedy. Seeing up close is so much more devastating than reading crime stories.
On the way back to Phnom Penh, I looked out from the tuk tuk and saw people going about their normal day. Life goes on. And I understood how beautiful that was.
Back then, I knew if I was to raise my voice to help, I needed to see with my own eyes what terrors humans are capable of inflicting on each other. I was glad I went, even though my heart hurt so much more than it would if I had just learned of Cambodia’s Killing Field from books and Youtube videos.
Cambodia is recovering, but it will take generations; I learned that lesson. The killing fields, the Toul Sleng centre, and other monuments to its tragic past are important to preserve and we must remember that it’s the children who survived the killing fields who are now the parents and grandparents of today’s children. That is most of the answer to “why”. These parents have grown up with a tilted moral compass, in appalling poverty, without the cultural values and opportunities which have made them prey to exploitation.
I can never accept the idea of selling a child into a grotesque future, but I can see why it happened and understand more about how to look for solutions. This is why I decided that writing and reading true crime stories, or fictionalising them, are not enough. We must all do something.
Robert Barclay is an Australian author of some of the best Australian crime/mystery novels. His Australian romance novels and stories follow the lives of Katy and Clara Yehonala, his strong female protagonists as they confront the evils of society.
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