A Walk Through the Killing Field

posted by Alicia Harper

On a sunny June morning at Choeung Ek one is likely to hear birds chirping cheerful songs and to see purple flowers blooming among the perfectly manicured grass and voluptuous trees that sway in the soft breeze. If you didn’t know your purpose for being here you may think you were visiting a charming Phnom Penh park to escape from honking tuk-tuks and swerving motorbikes for a few quiet hours. Even the towering stupa containing the skulls and bones of victims that were murdered by the Khmer Rouge here seems perfectly placed in the middle of its serene soundings. It is not until you enter the Killing Fields that you begin to sense unrest, the undeniable feeling that something horrible had transpired in the very spot you are standing on. A cold sensation rushes up from your toes when you look down, realizing you are standing among pieces of clothing and skeletons that once belonged to the people that inhabited this city.

The awkward balance between horror and beauty at Choeung Ek is hard to make sense of. Shallow ditches were, only thirty years ago, mass graves for 8,895 innocent people. Now the graves appear as soft rolling hills where roosters search for food followed closely by their young chicks. As we passed through the field we reached two towering trees, both full of life but were used to aid the Khmer rouge in cutting so many short. The Magic Tree stands divine and mighty with a web of roots at its base. Billowing branches sprout thick leaves to shield onlookers from the cruel summer heat. It is accompanied by a sign that says, “This tree was used as a tool to hang a loud speaker which made sounds louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” At this moment, the dread that began in your toes reaches your fingertips and the eerie feeling of being among the dead makes a home in your thoughts.

Next, you reach the Killing Tree, with its harshly bent and jagged trunk, less visually pleasing than the first. The plaque beside it reads, “Against which executioners beat children,” and scraps of old clothing scatter around its base. I stepped close to the tree, searching for remnants of teeth or blood, straining my eyes to catch a glimpse of any sign of human life lost against the aging bark. After a few moments, I realized that I would not find the gory symbols I was looking for, and came to terms with the reality that any blood washed away a long time ago with the rain. Time can carry away many things, but has not succeeded in running off the souls that were brought to the field against their will, now eternally forced to float around the site where they were murdered.

I walked the majority of the property alone to collect my thoughts in private. A tidy gazebo overlooking the eroded shallow lake provided a refuge from the sun’s heat. Beyond the shallow water sits a patch of ominous trees and brush. It is here that 43 communal graves have been untouched and unexplored by the Cambodian Government out of respect for the dead. As I surveyed the property where the horror of genocide took place just 30 years ago, the question of “Why?” consumed my thoughts. My only resolution to this question is that the feeling of power will result in the transformation of normal people into monsters, able to kill their neighbor for no apparent reason other than to feel alive.

Exiting the site, past the songbirds, budding flowers and towering trees I now saw Choeung Ek for what it really is: the closest resting place that the souls who died under the Khmer Rouge will ever reach. This is the most tragic thought of all.

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2 comments so far

  1. Smith Cam on

    Graves containing thousands of bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former inmates in the Tuol Sleng prison.

    http://www.tourismcambodia.org/provincial_guide/index.php?view=placesdetail&prv=15&att=5&

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