The Killing Fields

Eleventh row, window seat, of an Air Tran 737 out of Atlanta last month.  Startled from deep sleep – and the darkest memory – it was about the last place i expected to wake up…

The dream was vivid.  Not really a dream, but a flashback.  Memories of a single morning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia* in October, 2006.  No idea what triggered the recollection.  Maybe lurking work frustrations and exhaustion teamed up to rattle my subconscious and put my petty worries into perspective. 

It worked. 

When The Girl and i saw the itinerary for our day in Phnom Penh, we agreed that it was about the strangest five hour travel session imaginable.  Not exactly “Art Museum, Shopping at Nordstrom, Down time at the Spa”…

0800-0930:  Choeung Ek, The Killing Field

0930-1100:  Genocide Museum (Tuol Sleng)

1100-1300:  Shopping/Lunch at the Russian Market

Students and parents were herded onto a bus, and we left the city.  The congestion, noise and traffic faded away, and soon we were dieseling our way through small villages, rudely splashing pedestrians and bicyclists with mud as they went about their business. 

The landscape changed again.  Green and lush, rolling hills. We arrived at Choeung Ek.  There was sparse signage, cattle grazing nearby and no other visitors at that hour of the morning.

Between 1975 and 1979**, the Khmer Rouge executed an estimated 2.2 – 2.5 million Cambodians – from a starting population of about 7 million.  First rounding up politicians, and opposition leaders, they soon after moved on to the educated classes:  doctors, engineers, teachers.  Families of doctors, engineers, teachers… and soon, simply anyone deemed unsympathetic.

After detention, torture and confession, prisoners were murdered at provincial dumping grounds – the killing fields.  So here we were, a tour bus of privileged students and their parents.  No formal tour, we were told to wander the fields.  Small placards were posted near partially excavated hollows in the ground.  “Mass grave of 166 victims”, “Mass grave of 90 victims”.  And on and on…

As we walked, the sun was rising higher in the sky, making the day inappropriately cheerful.  A gnarled, stately tree stood next to a large pit.  This was “the killing tree”.  Rather than waste bullets on the smallest victims, the babies and small children were held by the feet, their skulls smashed against the sturdy trunk, before they were thrown into the pit.  A faint stain is visible at the base of the tree.   “Mass grave of 450 victims”.  And on and on…

We walked along in stunned silence.  There was nothing to say.  Stopping along the path, turning to take it all in, i felt something under my foot.  i distractedly reached down to pick up the bright white stone, from the dirt path.  Not a stone.  A tooth.  A human molar…

Never in my life have i felt such anguish.  Almost 9,000 humans were brutally exterminated in this pastoral field.  i stepped on the tooth of a murdered man.  i sobbed uncontrollably.  Not really sure how long i was down, but The Girl startled me back to my senses with “I think we have to go now, Mom.  Are you ok?” 

No, i wasn’t.  Far from it… but we made our way back to the bus, and rode off in silence with the rest of the group.  And on to the next stop on the itinerary: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Security Prison S-21)   

As i lurched forward in my seat on the Air Tran jet, it was all there.  As if i’d just been to the killing fields the day before. 

Perspective.  Use it or lose it.

Photo by: Michael Darter

 photo from here:   i am apparently not the only one to have encountered teeth of the dead in the killing field…

* The Girl was spending a Semester at Sea, and i accepted the opportunity to meet up with her in Asia.  Her ship sailed into Saigon, Vietnam and we took a side trip to Cambodia.  One of the strangest sentences i ever read in an e-mail was “Hey, Ma.  Guess I’ll see you in Saigon.”

** Just after the Vietnam War.  And the years i spent in high school…

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34 thoughts on “The Killing Fields

  1. And you made me cry on a Saturday morning, so thanks for that.

    “Between 1975 and 1979 …” and in the eastern suburbs of of our little hamlet, we really had no idea, did we.

    Just back from Sri Lanka, another spectacularly beautiful country just out of a civil war, one wonders how many similar things (perhaps on a smaller scale) are still going on and yet, again, we have no idea.

  2. syncopated eyeball – i went on the trip to see my daughter, midway through her ‘around the world’ adventure. i came back with much, much more than memories…

    savannah – sorry to be a buzzkill. i had to get this one out. there’s more. that was just the morning…

    nursemyra – had spent 3 days in Saigon before Cambodia, and fell in love with it. i am seriously considering a few weeks in vietnam and cambodia in the future…

    bob – sorry. not only did we not study cambodian genocide in real time? my daughter was never exposed 20 years later during her high school history courses. there’s more. it continues all around us… but we’re fat, happy and warm. well, you’re not fat, babe… you know what i meant…

    jimmy – thank you. you often remind me through your writing that there are worse things than slow traffic, whiney co-workers or stupid paper-pushing bureaucrats keeping me from doing my business. we are lucky folks, aren’t we?

  3. Sometimes having a feel for large numbers can be a curse. And I guess a holocaust needs a good press agent for us to be moved by it. Brilliant writing, Daisyfae. Sorry you had to experience the inspiration.

  4. The things we do to each other are sometimes just unbelievable until you see for yourself. You feel the air around you is different. You find the evidence that what they tell you is true.. brings nightmares to those of us who were never even there. My heart breaks not just for the people it happened/happens to but the ones who do it because they were told to. If they don’t they too will be killed. How do they live with themselves knowing what they have done.

  5. Hauntingly descriptive Daisyfae.
    Sadly, there’s many things our children are not taught, this is just one of many.

    Thank you for sharing, and sorry you had to have it all ‘brought home’ in such a way.

  6. Thanks for the recollection daisyfae.

    I’ve had a similar experience to UB. While in Germany on business in 2000, I had the opportunity to tour the site of Bergen-Belsen. In contrast to the weather on your day in the killing fields of Cambodia, it was grey and overcast with intermittent light rain that day in the former concentration camp.

    Nothing much remains there as the Brits burned all of the buildings down when the camp was liberated in 1945. German high school students now have field trips to the site to be amateur archaeologists of a sorts, excavating around the ruins of the barrack foundations and contemplating the deeds of their forefathers.

    There are numerous low walled planter beds (for lack of a better word) each signed simply “2500 TOTE”, “5000 TOTE”, “10000 TOTE” and so on.

    It does lend a sense of perspective to the daily petty squabblings we see on the main stream media (if we choose to watch that tripe).

    And yet, it has been going on for hundreds, nay thousands, of years. Do we expect it to ever stop? Sadly, I doubt it, based on the actions of some today, unless, of course, humankind can manage to evolve.

    That’s not to say that some haven’t evolved, it’s just that those who have are in a (very small) minority. And when they try to speak up, they’re shouted down by the majority.

    Your post is an excellent piece of writing.

  7. So well written, Daisyfae, God, seriously. We have many places to go while we’re out here and there are a few places on our list that I know will make my heart hurt, but we need to see these things and feel it. My kids need to see them…well, one of them anyway. It will be rainy. I know it already.

  8. I can’t even imagine the pain of holding that tooth in those fields. When you know that just below your feet are the bodies of so many, that’s got to tie your stomach in knots.

    Few movies have struck me as hard and left such visceral feelings about the Khmer Rouge than *The Killing Fields.* (Sam Waterston and Haing Ngor, who played Dith Pran). It’s so hard to get your brain around the murder of so many people.

    Brutally painful as that site must be, I’ll still go to the Killing Fields myself one day, if for no other reason than to pay my respects. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and sorry it had to come back up on you on a flight — flying is already scary enough.

  9. weighty story. will hang with me for quite awhile. will it ever end? mankind always seems to be exterminating itself…so i’m guessing it won’t end until we do the full job and kill us all outright. [heavy sigh] just not in my lifetime…or my kids…or theirs…or theirs…damn…

  10. mongolian girl – perspective is a difficult thing to maintain. i find it comes and goes… wish i could let more of the small stuff go…

    unbearable banishment – it will always happen. we are territorial beings. can’t be prevented, i think…

    hisqueen – some people are inherently evil, and enjoy perpetrating brutality. but i think you’re right – most were probably attempting to survive. a base instinct. and if an enemy has been de-humanized? probably required…

    blazngscarlet – i’m not sorry i went. changed me. and this has been on my mind since i went. i’m planning to go back to both vietnam and cambodia some day. stay longer. understand it better. beautiful people in many ways…

    rob – i wonder if hatred can eventually become genetically coded… like the balkans, where families have fought for centuries, that de-humanizing hatred might eventually make it to the DNA… genocide may be part of the human condition…

    sally – not exactly the ‘disneyland’ part of your ex-pat adventure (ooooh, you’re an “ex-pat”!), but important for the education. i’d think a lot of discussion/prep would be in order before visiting some of your regional sites…

    fragrant liar – i recommend a visit. as a citizen of the world, it’s the least we can do. i will be going back, and staying longer. cambodia is dependent on tourism to build the future — although the government sold out the people to corporate interests (apparently only $2M to a european hotel conglomerate) to manage the incredibly lucrative enterprise that is Angkor Wat…

    gnu – ‘self-exterminating’? maybe that’s part of the design. every so often, humans need to bust a genocidal cap in our own asses as part of the population control? condoms are better…

    jenny – thank you. there’s more to this story. when i hoarked this up, i realized that the first 24 hours in cambodia may have been the most remarkable day in my life. this bit? only covers ONE HOUR of that… i may have to write up the rest of this, but in short, digestible chunks…

  11. @daisyfae: Interesting that you should bring that up. Ann was telling me about a study she read recently that concluded that racism is not totally a learned behaviour based on environment. It seems that babies display racist tendencies in their first year of life.
    Humans seem to “naturally” want to be amongst “their own kind” and fear and loathe anyone who is different from them.
    Hardwiring may be one (of many) reason(s) that this sort of thing may never go away, despite evolving.

  12. Devestating. Like another of your commenters, I’ve been to Dachau, but I don’t have any memories as visceral as what you’ve laid out. Perhaps I was numbed–21 and seeing the world for the first time. Now, however, I’m a father and much more of a softie for the human race.

    As painful as it is, we do have to keep remembering these and other atrocities. Fascism ain’t dead, unfortunately, and bad economic times are when we need to be most ready to beat bac–i you will–hatred with love and compassion

  13. @rob – hadnt heard of the study, but it makes sense. humans are animals. cats and dogs don’t naturally like each other much… makes a lot of sense…

    ~m – writing this brought back more memories, and some photos, i took from my mere 3 days in cambodia. i’m likely to write more on this one… it marked me.

    blaiser – it is happening, and will continue to happen. best we can do is remember, flag it, and make noise when needed…

  14. oh my God! this is an amazing post and i am totally sick to my stomach. i have an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach after reading this. this is horrific….must have been such a bizarre experience to actually be there.

  15. I’ve never been to the Killing Fields, but I’ve seen the movie. And I don’t want to be all, “I’ve always wanted to go” but I have. It’s one of those places where the lives lost deserve our tribute and tears.

    Pol Pot was a fucker, and the US was too busy focused on being bitter about Vietnam to even think about opposing his regime.

    So you went to Tuol Sleng as well? Have you seen the S:21 documentary, where prisoners and guards and stuff tour the museum together? Because it’s RIDIC, and if I was one of those prisoners and I had the chance to meet my captors years after the fact, I don’t know if I could hold back from beating the fucking crap out of them.

    (Obviously, I gain all of my knowledge from movies.)

  16. Your vivid description is haunting enough. I can only imagine having walked those grounds and felt the vibrations of the souls whose physical lives ended there. The width and breadth of your travels and experiences is astounding.

  17. rassles – yes, i went to tuol sleng. haven’t seen either movie (or read the book) yet, but i plan to… that’ll be a separate post. there were only seven (that’s 7) survivors of S-21. i would like to see that documentary. i recommend the visit. not only for the history of the genocide, and to pay respects, but to see what the Cambodians have done since… it is a vibrant country. resourceful people. and tourism is their main hope – despite the people being sold out by their politicians, it is stunning to see Angkor Wat (a third post likely on this in the future).

    squirrel queen – it hurt. i’ve been told i’m psychically deaf, but i felt something crush me that day. there’s more to see and do. i’m just getting warmed up…

  18. That is so huge. I hate to say I “like” to think of things like this. But I like to use things like this to inspire me to do an ounce of good in the world. To prove to myself that there is beauty and good in the world amist the bad.

    Thank you for this post.

  19. lora – we must be channeling the same vibe today. your post on “sally” has rocked me, and perhaps inspired me to make some changes, as well… i’ll be over to read more of your writing this weekend. so very glad you stopped by…

  20. I kept a tooth, ware it around my neck on a cord,everyday someone asks about it and I tell the story….we cry and remember and vow not to forget.

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