March 13, 2010

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek

On most tourists' lists of must-see places in Cambodia, The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek rank somewhere near the top. To much to the western world, Cambodia is famous for two things: the Khmer Rouge regime and Angelina Jolie. Oh, and Angkor Wat—but, mostly the first two (Angkor Wat is for people who actually know something about Cambodia).

I finally collected the nerve to become a tourist for the day and visit Choeung Ek with 8 other volunteers. Before I came to Cambodia, I thought that places like the Killing Fields would be some of the first things I would visit, but in my varying degrees of emotional instability, I found myself weary of any further challenges to my psyche. It also helped that I could split the cost of the tuk tuk ride four ways—I'm becoming very frugal these days.

Unlike the mountain top fortress of Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, Austria, the Killing Fields are unassuming. A few small buildings and a large memorial stupa dot the otherwise bare landscape. The Stupa (that's an ornate, tall and thin building) was built as a memorial to the victims of the genocide, and as a place to house the skulls and bones found in the excavations. The stupa has 17 wooden tiers to display the bones because the Khmer Rouge took power on April 17. Inside the stupa, if you look straight up, hundreds of skulls stare back, cracked and dirty.

The actual killing fields are different than I expected. They are simply big dug-out holes in a shady grove. The thousands of bodies have been exhumed from the countless mass graves, leaving narrow walkways between them for tourists. Before the Khmer Rouge, this area was a Chinese cemetery, as evidenced by the remnants of gravestones scattered around the excavated mass graves.

If the Khmer Rouge thought they were hiding the evidence underground, they underestimated the power of nature. The earth here holds no secrets. The flooding rains have been continually bringing up the bones and clothing of those who were murdered here for thirty years. Remnants of skirts, sandals and white button-up shirts have all made there way back to the sunlight. The rope and blindfolds used to keep prisoners afraid and handicapped have also surfaced as evidence of the atrocities. The bones and cloth are stuck there in the dirt, right under the feet of tourists who tread on a living museum. Many keep walking, unmoved by the natural unearthing of crimes against humanity, but I squat down to feel the shirt with buttons that has recently uncovered itself. I wonder if it was a woman's shirt. Who was she? Did she have a child? Was her child smashed to death against a tree in front of her very eyes? Was she stripped naked as a final humiliation before being bludgeoned and buried alive? I stop touching the shirt.

This is the part where I wish I could be more ignorant; the part where I wish things that happened half-way around the world before I was born would stop welling up in my eyes and turning my stomach. The more I learn and think about genocide, the less I understand humanity. I don't understand how anyone can say “yep, I think killing the educated people in our society is a great way to improve our country.” Moreover, I really don't understand why, if you want to kill so many people, do you bother do photograph each victim and keep such thorough documentation of the goings-on of your death machine? Why incriminate yourself? It just doesn't make any sense.

Although I now understand even less about humanity, today was an important visit for me as an educator in Cambodia. My students either lived through the Khmer Rouge or they are the first generation after. Rehabilitating a country that was so mutilated only thirty years ago is no easy process.

Author note: I'm adding this part a day later. It was in the original draft, but I chickened out because I wasn't sure if my reaction was legit. I was actually underwhelmed by the museum elements of the killing fields. I found the ungrammatical translations on signs and the amateur low-budget visitor's film to be a little insulting, considering the significance of this place and the amount of tourism here. I was especially disappointed in the video that was supposed to have a poignant message about the eternal spirit of the Cambodian people. The cheesy effects and poor audio were actually comical. Embarrassed of my own judgments on a genocide memorial, I was afraid to blog about it--that is, until I talked about it with some other volunteers who had similar reactions. We talked about how different this museum was to places like Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and how western ideas of such memorials are actually very different from what is possible in a place like Cambodia. Some deep reflections later, I decided that I wasn't aware of the expectations I brought to the killing fields, and that perhaps the museum holds a certain authenticity in its imperfection.