Thinking twice, we hopped on a tuk-tuk going to the outskirts of Phnom Pehn, capital of Cambodia. Choeung Ek is today a chilled out garden in which center there is a stupa – buddhist construction in the shape of a tower, used here to keep mortal remains, generally cremated. In this one, 8 thousand skulls lay organized side by side, categorized by the type of blow suffered. Silent witnesses of the horrors of the genocide that took the lives of over 2 million cambodians over the 3 years, 8 months and 21 days in which the Khmer Rouge was in power. It is the commonly known as “killing field”.
There are several reasons to be cautious about visiting a place such as Choeung Ek. Going there seems a macabre curiosity. On the other side, it’s a chance to face the past, terrible as it may be. What bothered us more was imagining the possibility of a killing field turned into an amusement park. Going there would seem to be supporting it. Our personal decision to not to miss it, was shaped in the precise comments we heard about it: it was a respecting and respected monument and the audio everyone gets on arrival (not rented but compulsory, showing the organizers really want you to know what happened) was extremely informational and interesting. Of course we left there with anger and pity of mankind. And a proportional headache. But satisfied for helping maintain memory with my presence.
The place is silent since the entrance. We paid the ticket and connected our headphones. The male voice in the audio in English (several options, but no Portuguese) thanks the presence of the person, as it could read our thoughts, that it is not easy to be a visitor here. We start chatting with the nice speaker. He guides us through the signs that reference the places where the constructions were, and explains that taking power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, assembled by the Communist Party followers, tried to totally reshape that society. Invented the “year zero”, when all the ties with history would be torn. They believed the solution for the country’s miseries were in the peasantry. Being so, they simply ended the cities: all families were taken to the fields. The citizens were forced to work 12 ~ 15h per day, fed with rice soup and nothing more. Also died the peasants (originals and brought from the city) of malnutrition and illnesseses, besides mass murders – intellectuals, monks, free professionals and regime members: anyone who could menace the plan, lost their lives.
As we walked, we reached the bottom end of the place, kind of a natural aisle beside a lake. The speaker suggests we listen carefully to the first person tales of some of the survivors of those years. They talk about personal pain, the torn nation and the need to find ways for the memory and reconciliation: among them, judgements. Around there, but on the outside part of a fence, a new generation of cambodians is also trying to survive: out of a humble house, four boys, small and skinny cry with open palms turned up, asking money for those who connect to the past through a radio.
The place where bones come to the surface
There are roughly 3 thousand fields like this throughout the country, but the “Choeung Ek Genocidal Center” is the biggest memorial. In this place alone, more than 20K people were murdered, sometimes being shot, but generally with severe blows, with the excuse of saving ammunition. The bodies were ditched together in 5 meters deep holes and covered later with chemicals, such as DDT to prevent the smell. Most of them were removed and treated to be part of the memorial. Despite this, and the frequent care with the place, it is easy to see bones and teeth, by the action of time and rain, resurface.
The victims were commonly brought in trucks from S-21 prison, located in the capital, a centre of torture transformed today in a museum about the genocide (called Tuol Sleng). The careful accounting of the regime guaranteed no one escaped, not even babies, whose heads were crushed in one of the trees that remain in the garden today. They justified there was no good reason to keep them alive, it didn’t matter how young they were. And they could later come back to revenge their relatives. The details of this brutality, that irrational rationality and incomprehensible, keep being explained for over an hour on the audio. At a certain point, in front of a beautiful tree, we are invited to listen a music. It was the last one for those who died due to the Khmer Rouge. It is a stab on the listeners, forced out of the comfort of daily transe into seeing the reality – of cambodians and so many other people that suffered and, as our speaker remembers, do sufer still do today, the pain of genocide. It mentions several cases from the past requesting them to be alert and fight against these barbarities. If it was written today, the script would also mention palestinians, syrians, nigerians…
- To know more access the data of the Cambodian Documentation Center http://www.dccam.org/
- It isn’t a masterpiece but to know more about the regime it is worth it to watch The Killing Fields (1984), real story of the cambodian translator Dith Pran and the NYT reporter Sydney Schanberg facing the tiranny of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.