Choeng Ek / The Killing Fields
It was early. I passed a large wat, but I didn’t go in because I was wearing a sleeveless shirt. I was sweating and dusty. I saw two monks walking barefoot on the dirt road. They wore orange robes and carried yellow umbrellas and silver bowls. They stopped at a house and held out their bowls. A naked child, maybe 4 or 5 yrs. old, and his father (or brother?) came out and handed the monks some money. They squatted down in the dirt and the monks said a prayer for them.
I saw lots of different kinds of homes. Some were made of palm fronds. Some were made of sheets of tin. Some were made of old doors hammered together to make the walls. Some were made of wood planks. Many houses stood on stilts above swampy fields. No wonder there’s so much malaria and Japanese encephalitis here. Living on top of standing water. Some houses sat on the earth with garbage mounds all around. Living on top of trash.
There were birds I’d never seen before. There were rats in the foliage on the side of the road. I saw oxen, which are white and strangely humped at the neck. Some had baby oxen ducking between their legs. They grazed in fields. I think that oxen or water buffalo would suffice for de-mining operations. They could definitely clear mine fields much more cheaply than deforesting machines. I’m not sure what Khmer people DO with the water buffalo. You can’t milk them, nor do they eat them (as far as I can tell). Expensive to use as oxen, I’d imagine.
I went to Choeng Ek. Children rushed me at the gate to the place. One tried to climb on my bike rack and get a ride into the fields with me. Later, they asked me for money as I biked home. But I kept going down the road a bit and had lunch (bread and water). Then I went back. There were tuk-tuks full of tourists. Then a bus of Korean people came. I saw one guy who had a giant backpack on his motorcycle. I asked him the way back to Phnom Penh because I wanted to take the main road back. He said he didn’t know because he was going to Battambang. I guessed and found my way back easily.
The Killing Fields was strange. The first thing I did was go to the memorial jedhii (like a Khmer stupa). Khmer people prayed and burned incense while kneeling on mats that read: WELCOME. The jedhii was really tall. Inside were open cases full of skulls. Thousands of skulls. Stacked on one another. Jawless, toothless. Organized on shelves by estimated age and sex. Most had crushed craniums or large shards hacked out of them. At the Killing Fields, most people were killed with hoes, ox cart axles, shovels, pickaxes, etc. Not gunshots. Bullets were too expensive. One tree was labled “The Killing Tree.” Children were dashed against it and thrown in a nearby pit. The same one in which they found hundreds of naked women.
80ish of the 120+ pits have been excavated. I don’t think there are plans to exhume the bodies in the other graves. They found almost 9,000 bodies already. In the jedhii, there may have been that many skulls stacked high. Some of the corpses had been beheaded though, and they couldn’t find those heads. In the jedhii, at the base, there were also heaps of clothes that victims had worn. In ’89, they were laundered and put on display. For some reason, I couldn’t stop staring at the clothes. I imagined a little boy pulling on the elastic-waisted blue shorts to work in the fields, but then being sent to Tuol Sleng or straight to the Killing Fields instead. The girl’s flowered blouse. The black pants with the rip near the hem. We all have skulls. We all will one day be toothless skulls. But the clothes were choices (marginally). Some reflection of personhood that strangely seemed more real to me than the decomposed bodies themselves. They showcased a diversity that the skulls lack, except in placement and type of fractures.
I sat in a corner of the jedhii and stared at the clothes and skulls for a while. You could go inside. Tourists came in and left. More came in. Lots had nice cameras and took careful shots of the eyeless, noseless, jawless skulls. I thought about our very brutal species. We reduce ourselves to the vilest things: humans murdering humans, humans taking pictures of the skulls of humans murdered by other humans. There were display cases, the kind that you can buy vegetables out of in Phnom Penh, but these were full of bones. Some bones were split lengthwise. Some were hollow in the middle. Most were full of dirt where the marrow used to be. Next to one was a small shrine like we have in our house. People who found parts of people in the fields could bring them there. It was littered with broken and unbroken teeth, lengths of rope still knotted from tying back hands, bleached lithe bones like birds’ (children’s?).
After biking all the way out there, I wanted to leave. Like, soon. My chest felt tight, like there was a thick rubber band around it. My breaths felt shallow. So I only stayed an hour or so. I sat under a tree and thought for a while, watching the graves quietly. Local children climbed through a hole in the fence and wandered the lot. Very close to the pit graves were fences on the other side of which children led water buffalo into ponds and waded in themselves with nets or bent down to search for something on the pond bottoms with their hands. A group of kids sang happy songs on the other side of the fence, looking into Choeng Ek and the foreigners wandering there. There was a school across the street, but it was closed on Sunday. The children were out in full force. It’s good to know that people are still alive.
I think, strangely, that the skull-jedhii is a good idea. While the skulls in the jedhii seem to be on display as a spectacle mostly for foreigners who pay their $2 entrance fee, it also seems strangely culturally sensitive. In Cambodia, it’s best to be interred in a jedhii (usually after being cremated, but not always). That way, your soul can access your body whenever it wants. That’s why open-air jedhiis exist here, and sealed graves are not good. So the stacks of skulls, which are not even behind glass really, can be accessed by souls whenever they want. This must be comforting for family members, although no one could know if their loved one is in that giant nameless pile of skulls for sure. I thought about the horror that outsiders must have experienced when they excavated the parts of Choeng Ek in the ’80s. I can’t imagine the mountains of bones and skulls piled up on the earth, body after body after body, even though I’ve seen the grainy pictures time and time again. I wondered how the people that worked on the excavation or in forensics were changed by discovering the the numbers of dead and creative ways that they were killed. Then I reprimanded myself for thinking first of the Westerners, the excavators. I turned my mind to blindfolded people in the backs of trucks, tortured women & men & children, raped girls and women, bleeding injured people being shipped in from Tuol Sleng to Choeng Ek — still alive, for the moment, and scared, and trapped. 9,000+++. Pickaxes, hoes, trees, axles, shovels. DDT.
I don’t know if there are lessons to be learned from things like this. Maybe just that people have a seemingly bottomless capacity for cruelty, and to watch out for bared teeth and claws. I guess that’s an important lesson to learn. I’m not really trying to learn a lesson from it. For one, I couldn’t possibly understand what Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields mean: for Cambodians, for humanity. I wonder if anyone can. I wonder what older Cambodians think, if they think that there’s a reason for it, behind it. Younger people, too. I wonder how they make sense of it, if at all. Because I don’t make sense of it. I doubt there is any sense to be made of it. As a friend said, there are just some places, some things, that are holes. Nothing in there. The goal is to look as far inside as you can to try to see the bottom — without falling in.