Friday, November 29, 2013

Reflections ~ The Killing Fields

A small seating area along the marsh

Beauty survives

Living with history - a small rice farm alongside the killing fields

Making a living - alongside the killing fields,
men fish to provide a living for their families.

Rising above - a small traditional house on stilts above the river provides
a home for those making a living on the water.

Once filled with death and horror, there are glimpses of beauty retaking the landscape.

The Killing Fields

During our first days in Cambodia, we jumped into the deep end of this kingdom's history. The Killing Field that we visited just on the outskirts of Pnomh Penh. A short ride from Teol Slung Prison by bus, for us, was the end of a long and fearful ride for those whose lives ended here.

One of the things that struck me about Teol Slung Prison was the sheer amount of time that prisoners were kept there and tortured. Months and months of unimaginable terror and pain, starvation and fear, that only prolonged the inevitable. Many prisoners died at Teol Slung but many, incredibly, survived only to be woken in the dark of night, stripped naked, tied together with fellow prisoners and escorted into the back of a truck. They had to be silent, for the Khmer Rouge didn't want anyone to catch on to what they were doing behind the walls of the school yard turned torture chambers. 

Standing, naked, packed into the back of the truck, the prisoners were unloaded into a small building that was basically a holding pen. There, they waited until summoned and then were made to stand at the edge of a mass grave, dug into a field, where perhaps bodies were already layered where they fell. They were attacked with farm implements, rudimentary hoes and bamboo pipes, axes and awls...not even worthy of the quick death of a bullet to the head. All the while, revolutionary music played from speakers in a nearby tree, driven by a generator, to drown out the sounds of death. Neighbours living around the fields believed that the place had become a military training ground and thus explained away the revolutionary songs and rumble of trucks in the night. 

Years later, the horror of what happened here in this killing field, still made my stomach turn. Walking alone through the fields and along the marsh, listening to stories of prisoners and Khmer Rouge soldiers on a taped recording, I couldn't help but feel that I was walking the route of a horror novel. Particularly haunting was the tree where mothers stood and watched their babies tortured and flung against the trunk to their deaths. I can't imagine what breaks inside of someone to see such a thing happen ... never mind to your own child. Helpless to protect them, mothers then faced their own deaths. It may only have been minutes but I can't even stand to muster the thought of it without my stomach dropping and tears coming. 

Needless to say, the first days in Cambodia were heavy but I believe that carrying the weight of that knowledge was integral to understanding who Cambodians  are and what they have endured. Standing next to you in the market place may be the very Khmer Rouge soldier who loaded trucks in the night...or the mother of young sons who watched as they were marched to their deaths in the jails, never knowing for certain where their bodies lay. Everyone in Cambodia has a story to tell and woven into the very fabric of the country is the stained fabric of the years of the Pol Pot regime. Displacement, fear, starvation and grief have left none untouched in Cambodia. The very kingdom is made up of people who have survived, one way or the other, this incredible history. Living together again, there is peace but underneath the surface, the traumatic stresses of having to put history to rest without justice undermines many lives here. 

Recovered skulls, unidentifiable, rest among other recovered body parts as
evidence of the horrors that took place here.

Skulls are broken and teeth are missing, as those who died were beaten mercilessly
for months preceding their deaths. Deaths carried out not by shooting but by blunt farm
implements as bullets were too expensive to be spared.

Just one of many mass graves uncovered in this killing field, this one with 450 victims.

At first glance, a beautiful monument, but upon closer attention, it houses the fragments of life.
Skulls, thigh bones, teeth and arms of those who died here.

Even now, when the heavy rains come, more bone fragments and teeth rise to the surface of
the killing fields.
A small lantern and incense where you can offer prayers for those who died here.

Pardon My Ignorance

When I was preparing for my time in Cambodia, I wasn't sure whether I should read as much as I could about the country in advance, or just learn as I go. I had heard a little bit about a civil war and regime that had caused much damage to the country in the 70's but in my mind, at the time, it was a vague and short history that didn't really hit home until I found myself standing in Cambodia, in what was once a high school yard turned torture camp. On the plane ride over to Cambodia, I had a used copy of The Killing Fields, an edition nearly as old as I am, and I read it in one sitting on the plane. What I read only touched the surface but it was an incredible story of survival and pain, friendship and loyalties. Standing within the gates of Tuol Slang Genocide Museum, I was still surprised by the use of the word "genocide" as I wasn't really understanding the full scale of the atrocities that happened. 

When I was a young girl, in the early 70's, my parents took our family on a whirlwind 30 country in 30 days type tour of Europe. By bus. I was only about 6 when we went, and I admit that most of my memories revolve around good food, pretty dolls I picked up along the way, and strange occurrences like losing my Dad at the Sisteen Chapel (which I swear was called the 16th Chapel for years afterwards.) One day I do remember clearly, was the day we passed into Berlin, wall still intact, and the soldiers came aboard our bus with huge machine guns and sullen faces, scrutinizing our passports and hassling the tourists on our bus that were of Indian or Jewish descent. I didn't understand at all. I also remember the heavy silences that somehow my brother and I observed without misbehaving, in the yard of a concentration camp where Jews were exterminated. 

Standing in the yard at Teol Slung, I felt that same heaviness. This time in the heat and humidity, I could understand the torture and the injustice that took place  here, and it came to me that it had occurred while I was a girl, 6 years old, standing in the yard of a concentration camp, hearing that the world would never allow such a thing to happen again. 

The Khmer Rouge marched into Pnomh Penh as saviours of the Cambodian people. Unfortunately, the regime was about to unleash years of horror so incredible, that the imaginations of the Cambodians could not even perceive it. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, police and former military were told to report to an office to receive new training and positions to uphold. They rushed to report, eager to rebuild Cambodia, and were summarily exterminated. The Khmer Rouge also told everyone in Pnomh Penh to take 3 days worth of food and clothing and leave the city for the countryside so that they would be safe from incoming American bombs. A densely populated city, migrated, mostly on foot, into the countryside.  The sick from hospitals and elderly were pushed in their very hospital beds. Unfortunately, they too were duped and those that were strong were relocated into rural settings to begin life again at what the leader, Pol Pot, called "Year 0" - trying to restart Cambodia as a communist country at year 0 of development. The sick, the weak, the young were exterminated. Those that disobeyed or even gave a hint of reluctance or emotion, were either killed immediately, or were sent to Teol Slung to be tortured, for months on end, until they were sent in the middle of the night, in the back of a truck, to be killed and buried. 

The torture rooms and cells of those incarcerated speak volumes in their silent witness to the horrors they saw. When at last, the Khmer Rouge were finally overcome and forced to retreat, they burned as much evidence as possible but this place stands as evidence. Thousands of photos of victims were burnt but the negatives were recovered and perhaps the most haunting thing about the museum, is the sheer number of faces, young, old, beaten and scarred...staring out from the photographs. Mothers with young babies nursing or alongside them, forced to watch as their babies were tortured. Young men hung and beaten, nearly drowned and then revived to endure more beatings, old men incapable of uprising and young boys too young to know what they were accused of. 

The rules of "Duch" - the lead torturer and interrogator at Teol Slung Prison

Women young and old were brought to be tortured and raped for any imagined infraction.
After suffering months of torture, both physical and mental, they were taken to the Killing Fields by
night and killed at the edge of a mass grave.

Men and boys alike, accused of being CIA or KGB sympathizers, were tortured into confessions, Often shackled to a
metal bed alone with electric shock and tortures devised by what can only be called criminally insane, until they too were taken by truck, blindfolded and naked, to the Killing Fields and executed, often by blunt instrument because bullets were too costly to waste, on the edge of a mass grave. Those who weren't killed immediately were covered with DDT and then buried alive. 

Some of the collected clothing of victims of the torture

A woman is photographed with her toddler clinging to her

A young woman, maybe a mother or sister, has a small boy behind her
on the metal bed, as she is photographed.

And then we stood in that place, quietly, waiting to leave and someone said it. "How could the world let this happen ever again?" and while most agreed, I heard the whispers of Syria and Rwanda, of Bosnia and of Sudan and the DRC, and even of our own First Nations people in the formation of a country as beautiful as Canada and I can't imagine that I live in a world where this happens and we are so desensitized that we would change the channel when the news of it comes on. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What Awaits.

Often when I am preparing to travel, it comes up in conversation and people  have various reactions. Obviously, it's always interesting when you hear of someone travelling to a foreign place and whether or not you're a traveller by nature, there is something inherent in us that makes us curious. The world has grown significantly smaller over the years and almost everyone knows someone that has done something "like that" "over there" and returned with stories that shape peoples' image of the world we live in.

As I've been getting ready for this trip to Cambodia, I hear again all the reasons why I should or shouldn't go, like a litany of lawyers making their case in my head. I'm excited and nervous, as I think is normal for any traveller heading to a new place for the first time. 

There are a few rituals I go through in getting ready for a trip overseas, some practical, others not so. 
I realize that I have to verbally process the fact that I'm leaving to my family exactly 1.3 million times before it sinks in that I am leaving. I have said, "I'm going to Cambodia" in as many situations as there are languages in the world. With toothbrush mid-stroke, while scraping a frosty windshield, while walking the dog, while making dinner. While folding laundry, while watching TV, while surfing the internet, while working. Standing in an elevator, or a restaurant lobby, while drinking coffee and while tucking my son into his bed.  It becomes part of the language of our home for weeks preceding a trip and this time is no exception.

But this morning, sitting in my office, a picture comes across the ocean ~ two tiny babies in their newborn toques and blankets. Twins. Born to a single mom, who passed away during childbirth. And then suddenly, I'm not just going to Cambodia. I'm going to them. To see their new home first hand and meet those that will become their family. And meanwhile, there are tears for a single mom, who carried these sweet little ones in her body for months, only to pass away giving them life. I wonder about the mother who thought of names for her babies, only to have them called orphans. I wonder too, if she knew, that as she passed life on to them and left her own, that there would be a home already prepared to receive them and care for them as they grow. 

I'm looking forward to meeting these little ones and those that welcome them home.