Wednesday, December 08, 2004
That's how our first full day in Phnom Penh felt to me. I awoke knowing our destinations for the day (Choeng Ek, the Killing Fields, as well as S-21 the prison used prior to shipment to C.E.); knowing it would be a sad day. But not knowing how sad. Breakfast tasted good, and I was actually in high spirits as my driver tore his moto thru the clogged streets of Phenom Penh; dodging other bikes and cars, skirting a garbage truck (I saw the guy grabbing the trash leap high and slam a bag into the back, almost celebratory in his work.); eventually leaving the paved onto a less crowded gravelly road. A change in road surface did nothing to disuade my genie from racing pell mell on others' bumpers still weaving like a frat boy at 4am Saturday night. One more turn and we were away from the shacks and stalls and general chaos of life, into the countryside. No traffic, the smell of grass and fresh assailing my nostrils, my heart beat returning to a more normal pace, anticipating a vision clogging monument to those killed my man's inhumanity. Instead we pulled up to a fence and small ticket selling shack. A man with one leg on cruthes immediately proferred his hat to me with a large smile, begging for any help I had to give. Next to him another man in a similar condition did the same. Initially I ignored them, as several small kids were off to the side begging thru the fence (not allowed in perhaps? Maybe just knowing a good photo op? That is what they offered. A photo op for some dough. Cute though, calling out: "1-2-3 Smile!". Smart) and if you give to one the rest will crowd around and guilt you into helping all. And yes, perhaps I played the callous type.
Rachelle and her guy pulled up and we purchased our $2 tickets, initially deferring the offer of a $4 guide. Thru the fence I was not greeted overwhelmingly with sorrow and pity. The sun shone brightly down on green grass, nary a breeze stirred in the 95 degree air. I simply relished being in the much cooler shade and perused ahead. A large white tower, perhaps 10 stories dominated my field of vision. Even at a distance I could see white orbs on each level that I could discern as skulls. Instead of attacking the place full on, we veered right to a kiosk set up with pictures and a brief history. Interesting and sad, indeed. 350 killing fields around the country? 19,000-20,000 killed here? I didn't know. not good for sure. Reading material taken care of, we began to walk the grounds. A gazebo of sorts sat above a shallow pit that a sign told us contained the remains of 450 people. A lot of people for that small a space, but I'll buy it. On we went. Small indentions in the ground, perhaps 10-20 feet in diameter abutted each other. No signs announced their meaning so we walked on. A small group of kids approached us, asking desperately for money for pics or gum or pens or anything. Irked at 'the mood' being disrupted we hustled away and were offered a reprieve by a worker who chastised the kids (we assume). Conceding defeat and ignorance, we returned to the front gate to hire us a guide.
Our guide, mid-20s I am guessing, began our tour by heading straight for the tower which is indeed filled with skulls. He informed us that 8,985 (I think) people were exhumed from these fields and their skulls are all placed in the tower in memorium. Distinctions were made by age and sex and different layers held different classifications. Our guide pointed out that in many cases you could discern from looking how a person was killed. Holes in the skull, crushed skulls, broken jaws, etc greeted our gaze and the horror began to settle in. Impossible to ignore, we began to envision how certain skulls met their grisly demise. Almost 9,000 skulls. Which means 10,000 or so still remain in the ground (it was decided to leave the rest in the ground.). Floor level contained clothing that survived until they were dug up. Feeling ill at ease thanks to 9,000 dead people and our guide's visibly emotional voice filled with rage and despair, our walk took us back to the gazebo and more explanation. Pits were originally 5meters or so deep. Rainy seasons have filled in the pits. And yes, the successive abutting pits all contained many many remains. In fact, he pointed out to us an arm or a leg bone that was breaking the surface of the ground adjacent to the path and then a jaw bone displaying some molars in the middle of the path. Due to the rain softening the ground and such, he explained. That is why there were also large piles of bones beside a couple of the pits. Queasy....
Another gazebo stood over a pit whose descriptive sign let us know that babies and naked women were found in this pit. The women were naked because they'd been raped. The babies? Well, just take a gander at the tree next to the pit. See that flattened bark? We know that bullets were SO expensive that any possible measure was taken to cut expenses, so to kill the poor kids they used the tree. Though sometimes they tossed them in the air and let them fall not to earth but onto upraised bayonets. Khmers doing this to Khmers. Our guide could barely choke out how crazy and horrible Pol Pot was and how deranged his followers were. I'm convinced that if any of those perpetrators were in front of him, there'd be no second thought to gutting them. Again, I am not sure how old this guy was. And I didn't want to ask. To add to our growing despair, he let us know that thus far, no one has been tried for any of the crimes committed. No one. Even though many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were killed by the liberating (so-called) Vietnamese soldiers, many of those fighting for PP were only kids. And how do you lock up and/or kill an entire generation of your youth? While he saw sense in that (as do I), the idea that all those ex-soldiers are now grown up and still walking around freely really seemed to be a blow to him. These are ex-soldiers/children who had been forced to kill friends and/or family. Since this idea had never crossed our minds, we took it rather roughly. Before, our eyes and feelings bestowed nothing but pity and sorrow for those we saw in the streets. Now a layer of mistrust diluted those feelings.
I asked our guide how things seem to be now in the country. Is it peaceful or are there still attacks? Are relations with their neighbors better now (they'd been very bad with the Thai and especially with the Vietnamese. China I don't know. They supplied guns and ammo and most of what Pol Pot needed, at the expense of the Cambodian peoples' lives and sufferings)? He said that attacks on remote towns up thru 1995 made many rural folk move into Phemon Penh in an attempt to find security. He more or less said those have stopped. Kind of. As for relations, he never really answered. He stumbled a bit and got some words out that they want to be seen and recognized by the international community.
Our guide left us at the front gate. I went back to snap a couple photos that I did not feel comfortable taking in front of him. Standing alone amid the pits I tried to imagine the scene on that spot almost 30 years ago. The crying and yelling and swearing and bleeding and... I couldn't do it. At times I have a pretty vivid imagination, but I could conjure nothing up at that time. Thank god.
I saw Dachau. Almost all the buildings used by the Nazis have been torn down and the place was mostly memorial. But very cleaned up. A similar day, weather-wise, as the day I saw the killing fields. I left there feeling a bit squeamish, but not too bad. Leaving Choeung Ek I felt sick. And despondent. Involuntarily my eyes misted thinking of it all. My heart hurt trying to imagine the pain and horror that everyone must have felt during/after (still?) those times.
Sitting here almost a week later it still affects me pretty harshly to think about. I think the roughness of the memorial makes the atrocities more real. You see bones poking up from the ground and you can't help but invisage the multitude more laying under the soil and how they got there.
Early in our tour, as we sat and looked across several of the pits (there are many. So many. And so many more left untouched) I noticed that a couple dozen butterflies flitted about above and in the pits. Butterflies are supposed to be good omens. Maybe their presence was a coincidence, maybe it belied a presence of those poor departed. I don't know. But it was the one thing that day that caused me to pause in reflection of the good in my life instead of the horror I was learning about.
Many of us have the luxury of sitting in our quiet and warm homes, oblivious (purposely?) to the horrors of war and maniacs, a nice life unaffected by events such as Serbia/Herzegovenia (sp?), The Balkans, Israel, Palestine, Sudan, west Africa, and on and on. Just because we pretend these things aren't happening and don't affect us doesn't make them any less real or horrible. What am I proposing? I don't know, nothing I guess. Only that we shouldn't live in our little sheltered worlds imagining that we are not involved, affected by, influential with these atrocites and horrors.
I don't know. I really don't. I just know that things for me ain't the same anymore....