Friday, February 13, 2009

The Killing Fields

'As I heard these horrific stories of torture and suffering, I
could not help but look around me at the lush countryside
and imagine the hell it must have been just thirty years ago.'
-- Annie Gell

About 14 km outside of Phnom Penh is a quiet place with horrific memories. Choeung Ek, or the 'Killing Fields' is a mass graveyard, one of thousands of similar sites in Cambodia. According to Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Program, from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians or 21 percent of the population. Choeung Ek is particularly notorious because of its link to Toul Sleng (S-21) in downtown Phnom Penh. It was here that 12 000 tortured men, women and children were bought, most still alive, to be bludgeoned ( to save bullets ) and buried in graves they were forced to dig themselves. They were driven out blindfolded, in trucks under the cover of the enveloping darkness that an absence of electricity creates. They must have been petrified.

In the decade immediately following the toppling of the Khmer Rouge, many national and local-level memorials were constructed throughout Cambodia. Some are stupas, some just piles of skulls and bones. The 62 meter tall stupa at Choeung Ek, built in 1988, holds nearly 9 thousand skulls, dug out of their graves behind and carefully laid on glass shelves that go all the way to the top. Underneath is a pile of rags, some of the victims clothing.

Choeung Ek probably the most well known of the memorial sites (due to it's proximity to Phnom Penh) and certainly boasts the largest stupa but the brutality it has witnessed is by no means the most extreme. Nayan Chanda, a journalist with the Far Eastern Economic Review, described as ‘an obscene carpet of bones’, the remains of up to 100 thousand bodies, were found beneath mango trees in the Provence of Kampong Cham.

The guide books suggest seeing Toul Sleng and then making the trip out to 'The Killing Fields' but we were emotionally worn out after visiting Toul Sleng just after we arrived in Cambodia. We made our trip to Choeung Ek with my parents who had visited Toul Sleng a few days before. The sign at the ticket kiosk asks for quiet and it is so quiet you can almost hear the sun on the grass. We took our shoes off and walked up the cool tile steps of the stupa. Standing at the foot of the memorial is a powerful thing. The skull stacked shelves, arranged in age and gender, seem to reach the sky. So many people ... a lot with huge holes smashed into their skulls. The sign says ‘would you please show your respect to many million people who were killed under the genocidal Pol Pot regime’ but it was hard to feel respect over a profound sense of sadness that threatened to spill down my cheeks.

We walked around the sunken holes left after the bones were exhumed being careful to stick to the worn paths. Bones still lie in the ground and are set to remain untouched after the government sold the site in 2005 to a Japanese company on condition no more exhumations were to be undertaken. It is sad that the Cambodian people have lost control of one of their memorial sites but in direct contrast to the delapidated and seriously underfunded Toul Sleng, Choeung Ek is clean and well maintained. The integrity of the place seems to be intact.

'Mass grave of more than 100 victims, children and women, whose majority were naked', 'Mass grave of 166 victims without heads' and 'Mass grave of 450 victims'. Bits of clothing are visible still half buried in the dirt.
Another sign under a tree reads 'Killing tree against which executioners killed children.'

On January 27 2005 World leaders and Holocaust survivors gathered at Auschwitz to commerorate its liberation. More than a million people, the majority
Jews, died there between 1940 and 1945. During the session Secretary-General
Kofi Annan said, ‘Such an evil must never be allowed to happen again.’
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel told the special session, ‘In those times those who were in the death camps felt not only tortured and murdered by the enemy, but also tortured and murdered by what they considered to be the world’s silence and indifference,’ Later in a debate on the British Broadcasting Corporation website Wiesel said he feared that the lessons have already been lost. ‘If the world had listened we may have prevented Darfur,
Cambodia, Bosnia, and naturally Rwanda' some 30 years later. Today the world sits while thousands are still being killed in the Sudan, Darfur and most recently in Gaza.

Isnt it time we learned to respect each others differences, heeded the lessons of siblings and learned to get along?

Isnt it time it all stopped?

'If justice has not been sought, the piled-up bones should not be
cremated. Proper cremation is not enough for the victims, for
their spirits will not be in a peaceful state unless justice is found.
We should build a stupa and place the bones inside.'
-- Suos Phorn

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