The Killing Fields of Cambodia’s recent past

Please do not read this unless you are of a certain constitution – and there will be no pictures this time.  There is much in the World that is beautiful, but there is also the fearful.  It is too easy, at times, to Romaticise ones experiences and set aside those which caused discomfort, or unease.  This blog has been, and is, dedicated to the awe-inspiring and the breath-taking, but also to portraying true impressions of the reality of experiences.  In certain instances, the reality of the experience is provokative in a more horrific way, and these experiences are as valuable as those which inspire wonder, albeit in different ways.  I may take this down, I may leave it up – but we must not deny things that have happened to those we consider as our fellow men.

It was 18 kilometers outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and our faithful tuk-tuk driver ‘Mr Lee’ had carried us to the gates of the Killing Fields, not his usual jovial self, rather muted, contemplative.  The sights on the way to the Fields belied what was to come – two girls on a moped in ther pyjamas, 4 orange-robed monks cramped into an open tuk-tuk, a bike stacked high with livestock.  Even the entrance to the Fields was a picture of lush greenness and tranquility – silent but for the whisper of the wind, the rustle of the trees.  Paying our $2 entry fee we set out on the path alone towards a large spiral monument up ahead, marking the beginning of the Fields.  At a distance it was reminiscent of a Western war memorial.  Up close it was harrowing.

The spire consisted of 10 or so levels leading up to the top, glass-faced on each side so as to allow the viewer sight into each level.  On the first few levels were the bleached white skulls of hundred of Khmer men who were ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s (within a decade of my birth, I realised afterwards).  Each had suffered some form of blunt force trauma; fractured jaws, cracked skulls, some with clear holes passing straight through.  The other levels consisted of rags of their clothes, broken ribcages, severed skeletal limbs.  The unsubtle implications were horrific.  It was all too much.  We solemnly pressed on.

The walk around the field is frequently interrupted by large dips in the ground, being excavated mass graves where bodies were found by the dozen, heaped without regard together in shallow divots.  One hole which barely looked big enough to hold 10 standing men had held 800.  And then there was the ‘Killing Tree’, which I refuse to speak of, out of horror.

It is easy to see, in Cambodia, how full of joy the people are with simply being at peace.  Almost every adult we met had either memories of, or had known family affected by, the Khmer Rouge regime.  The walking wounded were common, particularly around S21 (the prisoners of war camp) in the city itself.  And yet, so soon after some of the most horrific acts of hatred and violence in modern history, the people are together, resolute, determined, almost ‘happy’.  There is a glint of hope and forwardness in their wise eyes, the worry lines furrowed deep in their brows adding years to young faces, but they are young faces brought alive by smiles that bely the recent troubles.  They are young faces that show, no matter what, whatever the struggle, good people will always overcome those who seek to upset that order.  So as I say, we must not forget the bad, but take inspiration from those who have stood up to it and said ‘no’.  ‘No’ we do not live in such a world.  ‘No’ this is not how it should be.  The strength of those around Cambodia every day is in itself a true inspiration, and if you have read this far then I hope this has helped you realise or remember something of value, or given you strength to say ‘no’.  The World is beautiful, but only if we strive to make it so.