Friday, November 29, 2013

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.

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