Cambodia: The sun shines on the killing fields

About 16 kilometres from Phnom Penh is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, better known as the killing fields, where prisoners from Tuol Sleng were taken by the Khmer Rouge to be killed.  Prisoners from Tuol Sleng were loaded into trucks at night and driven to the killing fields.  The killing fields is, quite literally, a field, though it is now fenced off from the surrounding farms and rice paddies.  Chickens scratch in the dirt and children beg to be photographed in exchange for money from the outside of the chain link.

Khmer Rouge victims were buried in mass graves, like those above, which sank into the earth over time.  Some believe that they continue to walk the earth as ghosts, that their spirits cannot lie still.  You have to be careful where you walk because bone fragments, teeth and pieces of disintegrating clothing are churned up by the earth.

The killing fields and Tuol Sleng Museum were the first genocide sites I had ever visited.  I know that genocide has happened more recently than 1970s Cambodia–genocide may even be unfolding in Southern Sudan now–but to walk these paths, watching where I put my feet is what made it real.  I was no longer a college human rights activist reading Loung Ung’s memoirs to understand what it takes to survive genocide; nor was I a student studying Nazi propaganda and Degenerate Art exhibits to learn how genocide unfolds and how culture is demonized and erased alongside its creators.  We may be able to answer the technical questions based on sociological, psychological or political research, but will we ever be able to answer the deeper, existential questions a topic like genocide brings up?  What happens to the killing fields in fifty or a hundred years when there are no survivors, when it is just a grassy field that was once the site of a horrible crime?

When you pay for your ticket to the killing fields, you are given an audio tour.  Many of the buildings, including the detention rooms and building where DDT (for masking the smell) was once stored, are no longer standing but signs mark where each once stood.  The audio guide explains what each building was used for, how the killing fields was operated, which Khmer Rouge leaders were in charge of the operation and personal stories of the survivors and executors.  It also explains how certain trees were used.  The tree pictured above, for example, is called the “Magic Tree.”  It is the type of tree under which the Buddha attained Nirvana.  The Khmer Rouge used it to hang speakers from which they played revolutionary music and recordings of Khmer Rouge meetings in order to hide the sound of the executions.  The tree below is called the “Killing Tree.”  It stands beside a large grave holding the bodies of women and babies.  The babies heads were smashed against the trunk before they were thrown into the grave.

The tour ends with the Memorial Stupa, the only building, aside from the museum, at the site.  A stupa is a Buddhist building meant to house relics.  In the case of the memorial stupa, it houses the skulls and other bones of the Khmer Rouge victims who died at the killing fields.  Visitors make an offering of incense or flowers before entering, then circumambulate the stupa’s narrow walkway around the shelves containing the skulls.

The killing fields had a much deeper emotional impact on me than Tuol Sleng had earlier that day.  Maybe it was the gleaming white teeth in the sand or a pair of purple shorts that had obviously been a child’s.  The experience was overwhelming for myriad reasons but it was the irony of sunlight that made it surreal.  The sun shines on the killing fields, beating, burning and blinding you as you walk into the depths of history, through stories of inhumanity and despair.

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