Buildings, Trees and Survivors of Genocide Tell a Vivid Story

posted by Peter McDonald

The earth at Cheoung Ek is defined by beauty and serenity. A large, intricate white stupa stands at the center of the compound, surrounded by ancient, curling trees. But the earth is not flat like normal ground, nor are the trees normal trees. And rising up through the center of the stupa are shelves upon shelves of human skulls.

They are the skulls of thousands of people who died under the Khmer Rouge — the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who murdered about 1.5 million people during their reign in the 1970s. The Angkar, as they called themselves, wanted to revert back to “year zero.” They murdered all educated intellectuals and politicians, all minorities and people with previous government affiliation, as well as anyone who simply put up a fight. Their goal was a population of just 1 million simple, subsistence farmers. Today at Cheoung Ek, the clothing, bones, and souls of the murdered still remain.

Prisoners were trucked from prison and work camps into the “killing field” and locked in a detention room until their time came. They were then blindfolded and escorted to the edge of a mass grave. They knelt down and were bludgeoned to death with rifle butts and large metal bars – bullets were far too valuable to waste. They were then stripped naked and pushed into the hole alongside hundreds of other bodies. Today those holes remain, one after another, as large depressions in the earth. As tourists walk between them, they step on tattered shirts and scarves.

The roots of the “magic tree” stretch down into one such grave. Its dark, thick trunk rises up and breaks into long, sagging branches. At its base, a sign describes its purpose in English, translated from Khmai.

Magic tree … the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.

Just behind the magic tree stands another large tree, seemingly leaning away from the mass grave at its base. This one has its own sign.

Killing tree against which executioners beat children.

The killings were senseless and brutal, but as a visitor, one can only appreciate so much. Our group had the privilege of eating lunch with Chum Mey, one of just twelve reported prison camp survivors, and one of only three alive today. He is now eighty years old. His dark eyes latched onto mine as I asked him questions, translated through our tour guide.

He said his life was spared for one reason – he knew how to fix typewriters. This was a valuable skill in the prison camp, for typewriters were used daily during prisoner interrogation and torture. After lunch, Chum slowly walked us through the Khmer Rouge’s main prison, Tuol Sleng – now a museum which lies in the heart of Phnom Penh. The prison was a grade school before the regime adapted it. Now thin, stone walls divide classrooms into tiny prison cells. Hard metal bed frames remain in torture chambers, while pictures of mangled bodies on the same beds decorate the walls.

Chum bent over one such bed, taking hold of a heavy metal shackle. He raised his thin leg onto the frame, slipping his foot through the shackle as he did thirty years ago. He demonstrated how his ankles were locked in place each time he entered the room. He showed us an old wooden frame in the schoolyard — once a piece of playground equipment — used to hang prisoners by their wrists as a torture mechanism. He said his toenails had been ripped out, his eye clubbed until he lost his vision.

But today he stands as tall as his frame will allow, and still moves quite well for an older man. As he walked us through picture after picture of prisoners, young and old, dead and alive, he stopped to point out his own picture. He stood with his arm outstretched to the photo and turned back toward me as I tried to take one of him. But my camera was dead. Perhaps that image best lives as a memory.

Chum has dedicated his life to sharing his story. His existence itself is a statement of the atrocities of the past, but he expressed the importance of making sure such crimes never happen again. Meeting, talking, and walking with him was a privilege and an honor, the magnitude of which I will be lucky to ever experience again.

Before we left the prison, we huddled around Chum as he spoke to us, and our guide translated.

“He says he wishes you will take this story and tell the people in your country. He hopes as journalists, you will bring the knowledge of this story to the world.”

“We will,” our professor said. “Tell him we will.”

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