After three years, ten months and twenty days of Pol Pot’s rule over one million Cambodians lay dead. Places such as the Killing Fields and Teoul Seng Genocide Museum (S21) in the capital city Phnom Penh serve as permanent reminders of the horror that Cambodia went through at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. However, the whole of Cambodia bore witness to the atrocities committed by this regime – and there are scars of this period far from the capital.
Underneath a modest Buddhist temple a few miles away from the city of Battambang there is a network of caves. The largest is known as the Bat Cave where every night you can see over two million bats fly out to hunt. A few minutes around the corner from this there is a smaller cave with an opening at the top. This is known locally as the killing cave.
This is where Khmer Rouge cadres would take their prisoners to be executed. Estimates vary but it is locally believed that over 10,000 people were murdered here. The Khmer Rouge would take them to the opening at the top of the cave and then bludgeon them with a heavy object and throw their body down the 80ft drop into the cave. It was not uncommon for the victims to still be alive when they were thrown from the edge.
Next to the killing cave there is another small monastery. Between 1975 and 1979 it was used as a prison. This has where people would be held before they were condemned to die in the killing cave. Their ‘crimes’ could be real or imagined by Pol Pot’s paranoid regime. As little as being found eating wild fruit or being suspected of not following the revolution could earn a death sentence in Cambodia at the time. Whole families were exterminated in this way, Khmer Rouge cadres fallowing their leaders saying “to find a bad seed you must dig up the entire root”.
After what is commonly referred to in Cambodia as ‘the nightmare’ was over, Buddhist monks returned to their temple. They found caves filled with decomposing corpses. Over time they cleared these bodies, placing many remains in various memorial stupas to honour them. Today there is a shrine in the cave with a reclining Buddha – a pose representing the death and enlightenment of Buddha.
It is an unsettling place to visit. In the cave, there is an obviously bleak atmosphere, outside the cave there are statues depicting a Buddhist view of hell and suffering. Although it is not even close to being one of the killing locations in Cambodia that has passed into common knowledge, the killing cave is a stark reminder of the devastation and senseless loss that Pol Pot and his followers brought to the country and the scars that still leave their marks.