Over the weekend I visited the infamous "Killing Fields" about 15 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh.
The setting was peaceful and anticlimactic -- a copse of trees, a grassy meadow....and many, many shallow depressions scattered about where victims were buried under a shallow covering of soil. This is where tens of thousands of Cambodian men, women and children, -- “enemies of the people” – were murdered during the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign from 1975 to 1979. There is a monument to the fallen in the middle. It’s filled with skulls. Some bear visible witness to the violence that ended their lives – puncture and stabbing wounds are evident on many of the skulls. It’s chilling.
The scale and horror of the cruelty was on the same level as that perpetrated by Hitler’s Nazis. The KR took Mao’s ideas about the Cultural Revolution and brought it to a whole new level. They wanted to create an “agrarian paradise” and completely erase all cultures and ideas that came before them. 1975, the year the KR conquered the country, was reset as “Year Zero.” Nothing that had come before Year Zero existed – the Khmer were going to start a new society. They abolished currency, markets, machinery and independent thought. Anyone with an education or any association with the previous government or foreigners was killed. Nearly two million from a population of about 8 million were killed by the Khmer or died of starvation. It boggles the mind.
Two excellent movies that capture the evil and madness of the KR regime are “The Killing Fields” and a documentary titled “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.” I bought both at the actual killing field. I just finished watching “S21.” It contains footage of former prisoners confronting their former captors at the infamous “Tuol Sleng” prison (picture of an inmate at right). The guards recount how they helped prisoners concoct false “confessions,” then tortured and murdered them. They clearly have checked their minds and hearts at the door and tell their stories in a monotone, matter-of-fact manner.
When I was in high school in the late 80s there were two Cambodian kids in my class. They were refugees who had been resettled in Vermont. It’s incredible to think about what they must have gone through, and how that contrasted with their cheerfulness. One of the guys used to entertain the rest of us by climbing a rope like a monkey to the top of the gym ceiling and doing one-arm pushups.
It’s clear that Cambodia is still recovering from the KR genocide. That being said, the people were friendly and generous with their smiles. Genocidal maniacs may come and go, but our humanity abides.
I had one delightful experience as I walked through the city on Sunday morning. A rubbish man pulling a cart and a little girl, presumably his daughter, passed me walking the other way. The little girl ran up to me and I braced myself for her pitch. But the pitch never came. In the blink of an eye she darted her small hand out for my empty plastic water bottle and flicked it into the rubbish cart. Then she flashed a warm smile and skipped away happily. "Or-kun!" (Khmer for "thank you") I called after her. Delightful.
Phnom Penh is a disheveled, chaotic city with certain hedonistic element mostly composed of foreign expats. You can check out my photos here. Click on "enter as guest" then click on "slideshow" for the best viewing. Not for the squeamish.