Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

From my 2003 South East Asia travel diary

The Killing Fields
Phnom Penh, Cambodia


August 20, 2003 (continued)

I'm not exactly sure when I first learned of this horrifying chapter in Cambodia’s history. It was some time in the mid to late 90's. I remember reading with disbelief about the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide masterminded by Pol Pot. I suppose I was too young to notice when the film “The Killing Fields” was released. I was shocked, horrified and disgusted by the brutality and scale of the murders- a quarter of the population of Cambodia had been slaughtered. Even more disturbing was that these mass murders been inflicted on the Cambodian people by their fellow countrymen and children. No one (adult, child, man or woman) was exempt from the Khmer Rouge’s desensitizing programming of turning humans into killing machines. Pol Pot masterminded the mass murders with the delusional intent to create a utopian Marxist society. Later, when I read about Pol Pot’s death in 1998, I couldn’t believe that I had only just learned about these atrocities, when it was over, and now the twisted dictator responsible for all that suffering had died and could not be brought to justice.

I’m not sure what I expected to see at the Killing Fields, certainly not what I ended up seeing.

To the uninformed eye it was a green grassy field with a few old trees. As I walked around with my guide, I saw several crater-like holes, formerly mass graves, in which grass and growth had started to push through the dirt.

My guide explained that the recent rains and the passage of time had caused the growth of lush grass in this area, and that the Cambodian government didn’t have the manpower or money to properly preserve these areas for further excavation. He told me of how innocent people’s throats were slit with the razor sharp edges of the palm tree leaves, how babies were bashed to death against tree trunks.

Images of blood stains and bone fragments lodged into the trunk of a tree brought heartache, heaviness and waves of sorrow.

The stark contrast of the lush, green surroundings with the reality of death and destruction that had made this field a massive burial site, was heightened by my guide’s poignant comments.

The difference between my perception and the reality of the situation taunted me.

Cambodian children wide-eyed and innocent, followed us and around and then playfully peeked out from behind a tree, posing for a photo. As soon as I shot the photo, out from behind the tree with arms outstretched, the children approached and looked at me expectantly. I didn’t realize that it was all a ruse (to collect for the pose) until my guide said something to them in Khmer; they ran off and he apologized.

My guide told me how he felt that it was so important for Cambodia and Cambodians to know their history, to learn from it and to share their history with the world. He told me that he believed that the people of Cambodia didn’t want to seek revenge or call for the executions of Khmer Rouge soldiers or killers. They simply wanted justice, acknowledgment, and life sentences to be served. He had high hopes for tourism and what it could mean for Cambodia’s economy. We talked about the power of the internet, and how it provided unprecedented opportunities for communication and information sharing. He was obviously excited about the possibilities and how this could benefit Cambodia.

I felt a glimmer of hope as I looked at the green grass pushing through dirt patches, and saw a chance for healing and rebirth.

Just before leaving, I bought a book titled, “First They Killed My Father.” It is the true story of a Cambodian woman’s horrifying ordeal of growing up and suffering in the labor camps at hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. The compelling story begins, from a child’s point of view, unfolding into a harsh understanding of the horrors to come, interspersed with dreams of hope and documentation of physical deterioration (which is tragically juxtaposed with what are supposed to be a child’s formative years of growth); there are also vivid details, and ultimately the triumph of human strength and courage.

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