A Human Tragedy within our lifetime
21.11.2010 - 21.11.2010 29 °C
I had heard about the Killing Fields but had never read into the history of one of the most tragic episodes in modern times. It is truly hard to understand unless you visit the Killing Fields. Those who have visited the Nazi Extermination Camps of Europe may understand but what’s so different about The Killing Fields, and what I still find hard to grasp is the fact that this human tragedy on such a large scale was allowed to happen in our lifetime, only a generation after declaring “Never Again”.
I listen to our guide as he gives us a quick history of Cambodia starting from the Vietnam War era. We are on a bus to the most well known of these Killing Fields called Choeung Ek, where over 8,895 bodies were found in multiple mass graves around the site. We all listen intently as I suddenly realise that he lived this. There was not a Cambodian who was not affected by this human tradegy.
my blood chills as I start to make the outline of skulls
The Killing Fields are thousands of mass graves around Cambodia and were a result of the atrocities conducted by the Khmer Rouge Regime between 1975 and 1979. Its Communist leader, Pol Pot wanted to bring the country back to ‘Year Zero’, through agrarian socialism. This form of socialism would force the country and its people back to simple agricultural ways through force labour camps. For this to happen, he had to ‘cleanse’ the population of intellectuals, academics, scholars and anyone else that could be considered, or could become a dissident. Just like the Hitler a generation before him, he did this by mass extermination, but of his own people, leaving only those that can easily be brainwashed, the children. By the time Pol Pot was exiled and his regime overthrown, over 1.3 million had died from the genocidal policies, and between 1.7 to 2.5 million when you include disease or starvation. This was out of a population of 8 million. I am already emotional before we enter Choeung Ek. The gravel entry path leads us to the famous Commemorative Stupa (mound like structure), containing the skulls and clothing of victims. As I near it, my blood chills as I start to make the outline of sculls, stacked in shelves all the way to the top of the Stupa. The sun shines bright but it may as well be dark.
Our guide starts to talk again, but this time he starts talking about his own experiences. He tells us of how he was a little boy when he was separated from his parents and family to work in another labour camp where he would gather cow dung. He tells us of how little they had to eat and how they would gather and eat bugs, rats, anything they could get their hand on. And he tells us of how he would feel very jealous, along with those that weren’t picked to go along to a ‘party’ the guards would have. The party music was so loud that everyone in the camp would hear it. “We found out later that the music was to drown out the gunshots and the screams of those they had invited to the party. I now feel very lucky” he concludes.
I am wearing sunglasses but I’m sure anyone could have seen my own reaction through them
Few words pass between us as we make our way through the site, pockmarked with graves, some as wide as 2 metres, others up to 5 metres. We come up to the largest of the grave, which contained up to 450 corpses. I can’t even bring myself to take pictures. Our guide points to the path we are walking on I notice there is cloth bits sticking out of the ground and before he can finish explaining, I realise that these are the clothing of the victims. Years of rain have washed them up through the ground and mud has hardened so that parts of clothing are buried or sticking out. I become conscious of this and step around every time I come across one.
I notice a tree ahead with a big white sign where Nick and Amber are heading towards. They stand there for a second and a moment later, Amber turns to Nick and is in tears. Nick puts his arm around her and they walk away. I walk up to the tree and quickly I realise Amber’s reaction. The sign reads “Killing Tree against which Executioners Beat Children”. I am wearing sunglasses but I’m sure anyone could have seen my own reaction through them. Amber is a Primary School Teacher so I can only imagine what she is feeling. I move on, feeling numb. But for all the evil that this place stands for, a kind of peace emanates from it. Almost serene and forgiving, with the green grass, shady trees and the strangely beautiful Stupa, surrounded by flowers and incense burners. It was almost like it was telling visitors that Cambodians have moved on and forgiven, but they will never forget the victims and their history. I head towards the bathroom before we head back to the bus to wash my face, both from the heat and from the emotions.
We are now on our way to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was a high school turned into the notorious Security Prison 21 (S21), one of many that were around during the Regime. These were basically prisons for those academics, professionals, teachers, doctors, monks, political rivals and any other dissidents that required detention and forced confessions through torture, eventually resulting in death. Those who entered never left.
We are taken around to the interrogation rooms and most are left the way they were found when the Vietnamese Army invaded and over threw the Khmer Rouge. A metal bed frame without a mattress dominates the cold room, with large metal shackles for wrists and ankles. It feels so unreal it’s like the movie set of a torture scene. Above the bed hangs a photo of the last victim found in the room when the prison was liberated. An empty ammunition box on the floor indicates what was used as a toilet but most shocking of all is the still visible blood stains and splatter against the walls and ceiling. The next few rooms are very similar, with different photos, and its own sickly blood splatter patterns. Even with a few other people in the room, I feel alone. It feels almost wrong to talk or make a comment so I move on silently and without a word to the others.
We move over to the holding cells where dozens of people would be shackled together in over 40 degree heat and were given less than a cup of water per day. If they moved or tried to communicate to one another, they would all be beaten. We enter a section where they have put up photos of all the victims of S21. The young, the old. Brothers, sisters, mother, fathers, grandparents. Farmers, doctors, teachers, singers, foreigners. Another room contains members of the Khmer Rouge army. Young boys, brainwashed. They were all later to be exonerated as only the Khmer Rouge Leadership were prosecuted. The succeeding Government had agreed that to move on from this tragic period of their history, they must forgive those that had no choice and grant them amnesty. It was truly the Cambodian way.
Almost instantly I knew what it was but as I drew closer I felt almost sick with emotion
I move to the last part of the museum which contains torture devices and graphic paintings from an artist who had survived the Regime. He painted what he had experienced and from the stories he had heard from others. There was one painting that grabbed my attention. I see it from across the room but not because it is large. There is a certain familiarity, as I notice a tree in the painting. Almost instantly I knew what it was but as I draw closer I feel almost sick with emotion. I make out the Killing Tree, the tree where children were beaten and murdered. It is also said to be where babies were killed too. The painting depicts a scene of two Khmer Rouge soldier in front of the tree. One of the soldiers has thrown a baby into the air whilst the other is using his rifle to shoot it. I quickly step outside for some much needed fresh air.
Very few words are exchanged between us on the way back to the hotel. It’s only 11am but it feels like a lifetime since leaving the hotel for the Killing fields this morning. Slowly we start making tentative plans for the rest of the day and night. Like the Cambodians, it was time to move on from the tragedy and time to celebrate the Water Festival with the rest of the country and the resilient Cambodians.