The Haunting Beauty of the Killing Fields

posted by Satyam Kaswala

All I remember was the sound. I might have seen a body catapult into the air, but it was too quick and too blurry to know for certain. A motorbike carrying multiple people tried to overtake our bus on the way to Phnom Penh. The motorbike driver did not see the oncoming car. The blindness proved fatal. The crash unfolded through the broken prism of windows lining the left wall of our bus. Several people were killed. That was the story gleaned from the others on the bus. But all I remember for sure was the sound, a lightening quick thud. It was the piercing sound of souls leaving their bodies.

Despite my own reservations, I glanced back, pulled by the same dark human instinct that makes people slow down at car accidents with no intention of getting out and helping, even when the road ahead is open. A woman’s body spread stomach down on a bed of hot pavement. Shards of broken glass glistened on the road. The tumbled motorbike rested next to her. I could not escape the fact that had we not been on that bumpy bus traveling to Phnom Penh at that moment, that woman (and others I did not see) would not have died. In some strange way, by shaking our group out of our comfortable spaces and dropping us into that haunting mental and emotional terrain, the Killing Fields had come to us before we physically came to them. For even before arriving there, the presence of death could not be escaped.

“HERE WAS THE PLACE WHERE A TRUCKS TRANSPORTING VICTIMS TO BE EXTERMINATED FROM TUOL SLENG PRISON AND OTHER PLACES IN THE COUNTRY STOPPED. THE TRUCKS WOULD ARRIVE 2 OR 3 TIMES A MONTH OR EVERY 3 WEEKS. EACH TRUCK HELD 20 TO 30 FRIGHTENED, BLINDFOLDED AND SILENT PRISONERS.

WHEN THE TRUCKS ARRIVED, THE VICTIMS WERE LED DIRECTLY TO BE EXECUTED AT THE DITCHES AND PITS OR WERE SENT TO BE DETAINED IN THE DARKEN AND GLOOMY PRISON NEARBY.

AFTER JANUARY 07, 1979, ONE TRUCK REMAINED, BUT IS HAS SINCE BEEN TAKEN AWAY.”

That was scribbled in white letters on the sign that welcomed us to Choeung Ek, one of several Killing Fields where from 1975 to 1979 the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime took masses of innocent Cambodians to die. Estimates of the number of people slaughtered usually hover from 1.7 to 2.5 million lives. History lives in shadows, and the Khmer Rouge genocide is one of its darkest moments still.

As I stood on the patch of dirt in front of the sign, I felt the blood in my feet recede towards my head as if trying to escape from that ground that had already known too well what it was like to be dampened with blood. It was the same dirt where those frightened Cambodians, hoarded like animals, first stumbled off of those trucks and onto the soil of their graveyards. I could no longer stand in front of the sign. I flopped onto a bench behind it with a view of the entrance gate. There was a row of trees lining the dirt patch where the grass began. The trees all tilted away from the truck stop and towards the entrance, as if yearning to rip their roots out of that dirt, hop to the road and escape. They were frozen in time, aghast. They appeared frightened and stood in silence. Yet unlike the victims, they were not blindfolded; they were witnesses to the faces of each and every prisoner who passed. Yet they were still trapped there, and would have to live with the horror, the images and the memory long after most of us are gone, in silence.

In the distance a bus pulled into the field entrance. It must have been traveling the same route the trucks did. The bus, filled with tourists instead of prisoners, swerved to a stop. The trucks would have inched closer and closer, rattling to a halt right next to me. Hot dust billows into the air. The engine dies. Doors slam. Khmer Rouge officers yank the prisoners out. I tried to imagine the victims’ faces when their feet first sunk into that Killing Field dirt. The sign said they were silent, and I would have believed it were it not for the soft wind. For in it, I could hear echoes of the screaming.

A towering Buddhist stupa jutted from the field as a memorial for the dead. It contained rows of excavated human skulls piled on top of each other, arranged by age and gender and numbering in the thousands. Above the front-side glass display rested a rectangular window with nine columns wedged in between the black space. The stupa was erected as a memorial, but this columned black space still was more of a prison window. Not even in death did these victims of the Killing Fields find freedom.

I sauntered past the stupa and towards the heart of the field. Rags once wrapped on victim’s bodies still rustled in the dirt. Before long, the sun that pounded on my back stopped. I was in the shadow of a monstrous, sprawling tree whose roots clutched the ground in mazes.

“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.”

Unlike the trees that leaned away from the truck stop, the magic tree had been forced out of its silence. Yet the tree, like the Killing Field, was unspeakably beautiful. I was guiltily struck by the verdant, gently rolling patches of grass, the lilies floating on the sparkling pond in the center of the field, the elegantly carved dirt paths that slithered through the bright greenery, and the cryptic, comforting trees whose shadows dotted the land. Everywhere my eyes landed, I nearly tried to sully the beauty by imagining the shape of the woman’s curled body from the accident piled all over this field during the genocide instead of on the rocky pavement the day before. But it was difficult. Nature’s beauty masked a quiet, graceful brutality.

Later that day, our had group met Chem Mey, one of the handful of survivors of Tuol Sleng. Tuol Sleng was a former high school turned death prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured nearly 20,000 Cambodians. The prison’s name translates to “Hill of the Poisonous Trees.” Chem Mey’s ability to fix typewriters saved his life. He was a gentle man with bright, moist eyes, the kind that seemed to have been overflowing with tears that never quite flooded out.

The Killing Field was a mass grave, yet there was so much life sprouting on every single inch of its earth. Both death and rebirth flirted with each other and danced in the wind that tickled my skin as I walked and hovered into my lungs as I cautiously breathed. The juxtaposition of the two added a crushing poignancy to suffering. But as Chem Mey and the land itself demonstrated, something survived. Chem Mey gave birth to his own life again after the Khmer Rouge simply by surviving the regime that millions did not. And the bones of the victims of the Killing Field became seeds. Surely some part of their souls still dwelled in the nature that covered the field. There was some part of life that the Kmher Rouge could not touch and could not kill. Something still grows. If there are things more reassuring than hope, that is close.

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