So last week, I wrote a little but about our visit to Toul Sleng. Well, today we visited Choeng Ek, one of the many “killing fields” in Cambodia and the one that the victims of Toul Sleng were brought to to be exterminated. A sign out front explained that truckloads of prisoners were brought to Choeng Ek several times a month, when there would be mass executions. They would walk off the truck and walk to a ditch to be immediately executed. There’s a new memorial at the site, which is a tall wat-style building with glass walls and several stories filled with human skulls. The place isn’t really educational or anything like Toul Sleng, but more of a memorial to the dead. A place to reflect on the evil that was done.
The grounds were large with several other interesting things, besides the memorial. Many ditches were fenced off with signs indicating the number of people recovered from each mass grave. One tree had a sign saying children were beaten to death against it. Another told that it had once held a speaker that blasted random noise to muffle the screams from beatings and executions. Piles of clothes scattered the area, some just beginning to surface from the earth. Bone chips were still embedded in the ground or laying around, much like loose gravel or pebbles. Larger bone fragments sat in piles, waiting to be moved.
Boeurn, our friend from New Hope acted as our guide. He was born in 1977 and said his family survived because he had an uncle in the Khmer Rouge that ensured his mother and his safety. He says he remembers finding bodies and skeletons frequently when he was a child. Just playing or walking around in his village, he’d see whole skeletons or bodies on the ground. He said he’d often search the bodies for gold or silver jewelry. Sometimes he remembers finding rings still on the finger bones of skeletons. Perhaps the scariest thing I heard that morning though, was that this history is not taught in schools and its rarely spoken about within families. With one quarter of the population killed, everyone lost multiple family members, and the pain runs extremely deep. Yet the absence of any discourse on the topic has led to younger generation forgetting and doubting what happened. Boeurn said that even his two younger siblings discount much of what happened to imagination and exaggeration. Its terrible that something like the Khmer Rouge genocide happened, but it would seem almost equally terrible if Khmers forgot about it and failed to learn from it.
I’ll add one paragraph of background here before moving on, since I haven’t really given any historical context to this post or my Toul Sleng post. Like much political history in South East Asia, the Khmer Rouge was the brainchild of Maoist China and came to power through the turbulence of the American Vietnam War. By 1975, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. They immediately ordered everyone out of the city within hours, on the pretext that America would soon bomb the city. This seemed plausible to many people as the US had continually bombed Khmer Rouge forces during its “Secret War” in Lao and Cambodia. Within several days, the metropolis of Phnom Penh was a ghost town. Pol Pot declared it Year Zero and it became apparent that nobody would be returning to the city. Instead, the Khmer Rouge was attempting to evacuate all cities and turn Cambodia into an agrarian society. Anyone with any education or status was imprisoned and executed. Boeurn told us that all the teachers in Cambodia were executed. He added that educated people, people deemed intelligentsia, and even people that simply wore glasses were executed. This madness went on for four years, during which anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million people died. The population was continually tricked, children were made to inform on their families, people accused their own families under torture, and many opportunists accused others for sex, revenge, or outo f jealousy. People were arrested and tortured until they “confessed” to charges of being a CIA or KGB spy, stealing from the Khmer Rouge, disobeying orders, or any number of other trumped up charges. Toul Sleng mentioned several times how the Khmer Rouge destroyed trust in Cambodia. During the 1970’s nobody trusted anybody, not family, not neighbors, not no one. Choeng Ek showed us the horrible consequence of being naïve with the Khmer Rouge or trusting anyone.
Not quite as horrific, but equally sobering was a drive to the local garbage dump. Boeurn asked us if we wanted to see, so we of course agreed. Driving towards it, we could see mountains of trash, with spires of smoke rising. As we got closer, more and more people began to appear, collecting bottles and cardboard, filling bags with rubbish. We were soon in a valley of trash and dozens of people were all around the car. Little kids, the elderly, and everyone in between collecting, recycling, and burning trash. Worst of all, was the fact that these people lived there. Working at a dump would be bad enough, but living on trash? What could be worse? I think photos will tell the story better than I can.
the black smoke of burning trash fills the air
dozens, probably hundreds of people working on literally hills of garbage
not sure if that’s this guys shelter or drink stall
what a life…
Some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror.
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness