A City Surrounded

posted  by Megan Swanson

Driving into Pnom Penh, the streets lined with shacks built with straw and tin sheets slowly give way to brick and stucko apartments stacked high with metal partitions between each balcony. These dividers are metal fans between each cell of the complex; several have barbed wire circled around the spokes, making the decorative appear dangerous.

Despite the divisions, several apartment residents sit on the edges of their balconies chatting with neighbors similar to neighbors in the states chatting through their own fences, sans barbed wire.

These conversations are lost to the bustle of the streets below, curbside businesses selling car parts, cellular phones, clothing, produce and street food. Across town, there is a fence surrounding a plot of land filled with beautiful trees and greenery, small purple flowers dotting the ups and downs in the landscape. The tops of the fence have rusted barbed wire rounded around the chain links. No conversations are floating around the boundaries here. Here, in the former killing field of Choeung Ek, there is only silence.

During the years of 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge used this land as the last stop for the tortured and hopeless souls sent from Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Flowers now dot the scars in the land where mass graves used to hold thousands of brutally murdered innocents.

Under the pretense that they were being transferred to a different location, prisoners from Tuol Sleng were transported to Choeung Ek in order to be killed by guards wielding bamboo sticks, garden hoes, shovels and rifle butts.

I try to step away from the group for a second and slowly close my eyes, take my hands behind my back and place myself in their shoes. Of course, this is close to impossible, but the motions emulate helplessness and hopelessness. The Khmer Rouge revolution that was supposed to restore peace and do away with corruption lied its way into the hearts and minds of Cambodians in the seventies.

A few yards away, there is a tiered stupa filled with seventeen shelves of bones that belonged to the ictims of Choeung Ek. My reflection stares back with skulls superimposed over my t-shirt. I am standing to one side of the stupa while tourists pose for pictures at the front and place yellow and white carnations in several vases at the base of the stupa. No one is standing near me as I read the cards denoting age ranges of the skulls. Fifteen- to twenty- year-olds fill the layer staring back at me. My brother and I would have been placed on that tier.

In one of the deep indentations in the land, a pile of old carnations rest next to burned trash — remnants of old prayers and odes to memory all gone.

Small tokens of prayer or lost memories are burned and destroyed right next to the graves that held the people they give tribute to. Our prayers are lost on that land, along with any justice that will come to the Khmer Rouge.

As we walk out of the gates and onto our bus, the barbed wire fades into the distance, but the imprint that the Killing Fields have left on our heavy hearts will dwell forever inside a fence built by a regime determined to dehumanize its own people.


2 comments so far

  1. A. Barlow on

    Great insight!

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