A visit to Cambodia without a visit to The Killing Fields is like going to Paris and not visiting The Louve. I mean I am sure many people do it, but I deeply question their sanity. And I am in no way comparing them in any way other than that they are both equally must visits, as each is such a hugely different experience.
I meant to visit early in the morning, as I really wanted to stay out of the roasting sun on what I assured myself was a large outdoor site. But as I knew it would be quite the harrowing experience, I found every reason to put it off till later in the day. Strong sun be damned…
As i procrastinated on twitter, I said I was building up the courage to visit. This was the most spot on description I have uttered of late. Even when I went to hire a tuk-tuk to take me there, I dreaded every step. I even almost turned around twice. Trust me, it is hard to find some/any enthusasim to visit a site of such massive genocide, where at least 15,000 people were senselessly put to death and burried in shallow mass graves.
I had planned to be there when it opened, but did not wind up leaving my guest house till just after 11:00 am. And then only with a serious case of apprehension lingering over me. The 40 minute ride there only caused this to grow as I replayed scenes from The Killing Fields over and over again in my mind, allowing me to question just how humanity could allow an atrocity such as The Khmer Rouge regime to exist. And how my own country facilitated and brought Pol Pot to power in trying to stop the Viet Cong.
Then, just questioning humanity.
The entire ride over I kept viewing each turn as the one that would force me to confront such genocide for the first time. It is not very comforting knowing when your feet next touch the ground it will be on such profoundly desiccated ground. If you can tell I was not exactly looking forward to this, you are correct. But I also knew visiting Cambodia and not going would be total and utter denial and equally foolish. So when I finally saw the sign that said Killing Fields Genocide Museum 800M, I sucked in as much air as I could and held it till my driver pulled up to the front gate.
I’m not sure why, but I really thought it would smell worse, other worldly, of brimstone perhaps. I think I wanted it to. To signal the slaughter that took place here was out of the realm of this reality. It did not. If it ever was there, in the ensuing years, the evil has been erased from the air. If it smelled of anything in particular, it was the faint smell of farm land that surrounded the site.
So I made my way past the beggars, paid for my ticket, and then on to the small museum, where the figures and numbers come to life, reanimated with photos, implments of death (clubs, axes, palm knifes, bamboo sticks… they saved money by killing via sheer brutality rather than bullets), remnants of clothing, and fragments of people. It honestly seemed a bit lacking upon going in. How could such a small building hope to convey the tragedy that occured here? But as I exited, I clearly understood why understatement was best. There is no need to talk much when the landscape of horror washes over you like a typhoon outside.
The first thing you notice, even just as you are pulling up, and what dominates the entire complex is a massive 39M tall stupa. It houses the remains of the victims on 17 levels in a glass enclosure so you can see just how brutal and sadly effective the killing fields were. You are asked to visit it first,but for some reason I just could not. My gaze wandered else where, and my body followed. I made my way past the foundations of the two buildings where they imprisoned people before their gruesome deaths and where the beasts who did this documented it all with efficiency that would make IBM proud. I moved past the location where they kept the DDT which they would toss on top of their kills to mask the smell of rotting bodies that would fester under the open sun in this very warm subtropical environment.
I slowly walked to the first excuvated pit where they exhumed all the bodies. I walked there and stoped. I stood there, motionless, reading the sign that said the pit once contained “450 bodies,” once so full of life. I leaned ever so hard on my cane and tried to breathe. It was no longer an involuntary action.
I was sure I would weep upon reaching this point, but my eyes were dry. My eyes just stared at the extremely small pit where 450 bodies once were dumped so unceremoniously. I stood there more shocked that it was so small, maybe 4.5x3M, than shocked it could happen at all. In between reminding myself to breathe I told myself “it looked so much bigger on TV,” “aren’t mass graves meant to be larger?,” “just how could they all fit?,” and the like. But rather than answer myself, I just stood behind the fence enclosing the grave site wondering how this amount of inhumanity is even possible.
The tears did not start flowing until I sat down in a gazebo overlooking a pond that replaced many of the mass graves. I first stopped there to get out of the weight of the massively hot sun that was bearing down on me ever so heavily. I sat there retracing my steps: weaving my way through the 20 or so mass graves, past the killing tree, where babies and infants were swung overhead into the trunk of the tree splitting their heads open and then dropped into a pit, often still with life pulsing though their small bodies, past the mass grave where 180 bodies where exhumed, but nary a skull. It was not until I did this while sitting in the shade of that gazebo that my body started to convulse and tears flowed from those once very dry eyes.
I was not holding back on purpose, but once they started flowing it was like a flood cresting over a levy. So I remained on that bench, under that gazebo for far longer than I had planned. In fact when I emerged again, eyes dry again, body still again, the sky had opened up and it started to rain down upon me ever so slightly. If I believed in higher powers or such, I would say that the universe was crying for what it allowed to happen here, but the universe allowed nothing.
We, Western powers, supplied the arms and munitions that allowed the Khmer Rouge to abduct power. And then it was not some coalition of “the good guys” that liberated Cambodia from death’s grasp, but Vietnam — THE SAME DAMN COUNTRY WE GAVE POL POT ARMS TO FIGHT. Where the United Nations should have stepped in and stopped the genocide, they left it to a country they had vilified for over 20 years to clean up the mess our actions made into reality.
I kept thinking this, as I walked the rest of the path, around the remaining mass graves back to the stupa, back to all those skulls staring out at me that I was far too hesitant to view upon entry. Their final resting place gives them the honor their previous resting places forbade them, but still it does not feel enough. It has not convinced others to treat their fellow man better. It has not taught us to respect the lives of all living beings. As I stared at those empty eye sockets staring back at me I could not help but repeat the refrain “WHY!?” in my head.
And since leaving I have basically answered this question to the best of my ability. When I was 12, I visited Germany with my parents. And it never hit me till now, but we never visited a single camp while there. In fact, there was not even a mention of one. I am not even sure I knew of the Holocaust at this point, as I am pretty sure my first interaction with it was through reading The Diary of Anne Frank later that same year in school. But somehow my parents thought it best to avoid this important history and act like it never happened. After returning from The Killing Fields I asked my dad why. He responded that they did not think it was appropriate at my age. Um…. Genocide is not appropriate for any age to see, but to deny it, to hide it, to never talk about it is such a profoundly disrespectful way to remember, er… mis-remeber, those killed. To even think about traveling to places where such events occurred and not visit is a crime. A crime that allows us to devolve to a point where we can once again kill and slaughter without care.
And for as difficult as a trip this was for me, and when I finish part two of this, you will see that it got far more difficult just as I stepped off the site, I can not think of being able to be here without going and paying my respects. Of being here and enjoying so much this wonderful country has to offer and not take a few moments to understand what happened here, what we allowed to happen here, just 30 years ago. Of being here and not realizing what reality is here….