The Killing Fields

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia this week. Taking in a couple temples and the palace. Probably the biggest draw here is the TS 21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. We took our tour on the Khmer New Years Eve.  

We booked online and were randomly fortuitously assigned to Sakari, a slight Cambodian woman of about 50 who spoke very good English. Along with the tour, we got her first hand story which was simply riveting.

She was 5 years old when the bombings stopped. Many people were hopeful the fighting would end, and on 17 April the Khmer Rouge troops entered the city.  They were greeted like heros, with cheers and applause. Surely, the war there would be over.

Within a short time though, things took a turn. The city of Phnom Penh was ordered evacuated. Families were told they needed to clear out of the city for three days. The message was reassuring though, and calming, so most people took only a little money and a change of clothes and headed to their assigned villages.

Once there, families were separated. Children taken from parents. Spouses from each other. That was the last she’d see of her parents until she was nearly eleven.

Tuol Sleng 21 (TS 21) had been a high school for many years. It was rapidly converted into a prison and interrogation center.  Most former government, diplomats, teachers and professionals were sent there for processing and training.

They were hung upside down for days. If they passed out they were dipped in fecund water. They were beaten and electrocuted. Those more important were given their own cells measuring 2 ½ foot by 8 foot.  The lower classes were laid side by side, carpeting an open classroom, their legs in irons. This included women, teens and children.

Sakari’s father was an engineer. He was slated to be sent TS 21, but he managed to beg his way into the countryside destroying anything he had that identified him as an educated man. People with glasses were assumed to be smart, or at least well off. They were all slated for torture. Her father spent the rest of the time claiming to be a factory worker.

The people in the hills, per our guide, had nothing in their heads, because they’d never gone to school. The government could tell them anything. This ensured a steady supply of people needing training and interrogation. Dozens of new arrivals every day. After the educated, came former soldiers, identified because they had no clothes. They had stripped and lost their uniforms. Then they turned on each other.  Accusing neighbors of not being faithful enough to the cause.

The people who’d been pushed into the country were all employed in an effort to build an agrarian paradise. They made a huge effort to build rice paddies and dikes. Sakari was too young to do much, so she was given a tin can to collect animal waste for fertilizer. Twice a day, the children were formed into food lines. She was doled out a few spoonfuls of rice soup and, after, some water into her same collection can.

After prisoners at TS 21 we’re sufficiently rendered, they were asked to write down their biography and an admission of any transgression toward the state. After dark, a few times per month, a few dozen prisoners were selected. They’re told their training is complete and they were to be taken into the countryside. They were bound and blindfolded and put on a truck for a ride into the country.  They stop at an old Chinese cemetery and orchard.

Loudspeakers hung from trees play soothing traditional music. There must be birds chirping in the early morning.

One by one people are led away and made to kneel at the edge of a ditch and clubbed or hacked or pithed to death, and pushed into the pit on top of other remains. Some lucky soldier has the job of gutting the corpses, so they don’t bloat in the heat.  Bloated corpses take up too much room.

Children were not exempt. They’re taken just the same. The farming belief being that if one wants to kill the grass, you must kill the roots and the blades. At the orchard near a large tree, the young were taken from their mothers and bashed against a tree.  The mothers were stripped and raped and then killed and left in a pit nearby.

It is hard to handle now.  The heat beads sweat and this melds with tears. I choked back tears for most of the morning. Even now, our tour guide, who has repeated this tour countless times, shivers and chokes up at times. One wonders about her strength.

Even with excavation, fragments of bone and cloth still rise to the surface with each washing of the rain. No one knows exactly how many are gone. It may have been as much as half the 7 million population.

Five years after a return to Year Zero, the killing stopped. Halted by the Vietnamese. Sakari, along with the rest of the children were al herded to a nearby village. It is hard to fathom how it could happen after no contact for five years, but she was reunited with both of her parents, though minus a brother. How they all must have changed in their appearance and nutrition. How did anyone recognize anyone from before? Do they ever wonder?

A couple of times she wondered how she survived. She showed us scars from ulcerating skin infections, which on a malnourished child must have covered most of her leg. “No food, no parents, no medicine. How I can survive? I have no idea!”

Sakari, though in Khmer means ‘lucky’.  And I guess she was.

It is so tragic that mass killings of people is such a regular occurrence. From Armenia to Rwanda, Bosnia to South Sudan, we make up a bogeyman, a Christian, or a Jew or a Tutsi, or an intelligentsia, and then we slaughter them. And we try and hide the bodies, thinking no one will ever know. And yet, we always find out. Someone survives or remembers and the pieces of that tragedy all fall into place. And we’re left with another monument to millions of victims until the next bogeyman comes along.

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