It took me over a year to get around to writing this. Even now it creates a lump in my throat and makes me feel physically sickened. I am writing about a place, about 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh that, when I was in high school, was a non-descript fruit orchard among the many others in the countryside surrounding the capital. Today many of the trees are gone and what is left is a dusty field, some craters in the ground, a Buddhist stupa and: pieces of torn clothing and fragments of human bone. There is also, a number of people, of many nationalities, walking around with somber, almost shell-shocked, looks on their faces; some with tears in their eyes; asking the unanswerable question; why? Birdsong and the sounds of cicadas fill the air, but they feel vulgar and out of place here now. The Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Cambodia are haunting.
In the spring of 1975 this orchard, on the outskirts of the city formerly known as “The Pearl of Asia”, was a lovely place where warm breezes stirred the air and children played among the trees and ponds. Then the trucks started to arrive. They were driven by brainwashed children, now soldiers in the army of the Khmer Rouge and filled with broken prisoners from S-21 prison, or Tuol Sleng; recently known as Chao Ponhea Yat High School. They were blindfolded and bound, but compliant because, after weeks of confinement in a place of unimaginable horror, they had been told they were going to be taken “home”.
Because the grounds of Chao Ponhea Yat High School had been filled with the graves of people whose “crimes” included being educated or even knowing how to read, “home” for these prisoners was this orchard, now repurposed as the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. They were removed from the trucks – while loud patriotic music blared in the background to mask what was happening – escorted to the pits, made to kneel down and murdered by their fellow citizens, with farm implements or whatever else was on hand. Bullets were too expensive.
I really didn’t want to see “The Killing Fields”, but I felt that it was almost a duty. The very fact that it exists is an affront to me and humankind. It is a haunting reminder – which apparently we still need – of what happens when we let rigid ideology usurp our humanity. It sickens me to know that, even as I type this, that there are other killing fields being created. Once you have seen a place like Choeung Ek, you will never forget; and you will never see news from faraway places the same again.
For more information go to The Killing Field Museum Site.