Wednesday, June 17, 2009

We Can't Deal with it, You Know?

Skulls of the victims of the Khmer RougePol Pot killed 1.7 million Cambodians. We can't even deal with that! You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that's murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that's what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can't deal with it, you know? Someone's killed 100,000 people. We're almost going, "Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning. I can't even get down the gym! Your diary must look odd: “Get up in the morning, death, death, death, death, death, death, death, lunch, death, death, death, afternoon tea, death, death, death, quick shower…" -Eddie Izzard, British stand-up comedian.

I read the sign where the “waiting” room stood at the Killing Field of Choeng Ek. Our guide told us that the soldiers originally all killed their victims on arrival, but that when the number of victims went above 300 per day, the soldiers “failed in attempt to kill them all within a day. That is why they were detained for execution the next day.”

Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killed with torture, slavery, starvation, and mass execution. Anyone who seemed to have any intellect was a threat, and therefore killed. If you spoke a foreign language or wore glasses, you were a “parasite,” and systematically destroyed. Parents were separated from children. This was done in the name of creating an idyllic communist agrarian society to "surpass that of Mao or Lenin". Their motto was 'To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss'. They killed at fields scattered across the country that are now simply known as “the killing fields.” The most famous (though not the largest) of these is just outside the capital. This is where I found the “waiting room.”

I don't think I'll ever forget the signs in that field. They were usually simple English, only a few words, just like the various ones I'd seen at Angkor Sat that said “NO SITTING ON BALUSTRADE” or “LOOSE ROCKS, DANGER.” It was at that same level. But these ones didn't tell you to watch your head.

They were always in all capital letters, not to emphasize the point, that was just how the writers knew how to write them. “166 VICTIMS WITH OUT HEADS.” or “KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN.” No other explanation. There was only one sign that didn't use all capital letters. It was a small white one with blue writing that read “Please don't walk through the mass grave.”

I felt like I was going to vomit. I still do as I write this. Bits of bone were poking up through the ground. It you didn't look carefully, they just looked like white stone in the ground instead of teeth and femurs. Our tour guide's English wasn't terrible, but I only could catch snips and pieces. “450 bodies found in this mass grave. Still open.” “100 in this grave, mostly women and children. They take clothes off because they think clothes make torture less painful.” “Heads probably in the lake” “Killed their own parents.” “Dug their own graves- told that they were going to plant flowers. They lied.”

We were shown a tree from which a large speaker had been hung to play “communist music” as our guide called it. The victims, brought in blindfolded, couldn't hear the moans of those around them dying. All they heard was music. They died hearing communist hymns.

The educated were killed because they posed a threat. Their families were killed to prevent youngsters growing up and seeking revenge. The victims were tortured into providing the names of everyone they knew in order to find more educated or otherwise unfavored people to kill. Soldiers would tell mothers that their babies would be killed if they did not talk. They talked. Then the babies were killed anyway. So were the mothers.

They died beaten by bamboo, stabbed by swords, split open by axes. Children were hung from trees with sharpened stakes below their chin and throat, and then cut down. Some victims were killed by gun, but most by being struck by the gun itself rather than being shot, because the bullets were considered too valuable. Soldiers doing the killing were sometimes then killed by order from their superiors. Many were found with their uniforms, but without their heads.

Today, in the middle, the first thing you will see is a white stupa memorial, at the center of which is a glass case, several stories tall. It is almost entirely filled with 9,000 human skulls.

I don't believe in absolute evil. I don't think it really exists. But this is the most that belief has ever been challenged.

I spent a lot of my time just staring at the Cambodian people as I was driven back. Almost everyone looked like they were under 30. What are you supposed to do after your capital is abandoned for nearly four years and entire families are tortured and executed by brainwashed teenagers, many of them are then executed themselves for knowing too much?

I found an English-language newspaper based in Phnom Penh. Even though the Khmer Rouge fell to the Vietnamese thirty years ago, they're still making headlines. In page three were new revelations about the torture methods used in S-21, one of the most infamous prisons. The trials of the KR's known leaders is still happening today. They're only just now working out how many hours of questioning each side will be limited to. These are for crimes committed a decade before my birth.

My guidebook to Southeast Asia has a different research author for each country. When I first read the writing of the guy who did Cambodia, I thought he was really funny. (“Markets and disabled street sellers pawn cheap copies of most (book) titles, but we know you wouldn't dream of buying a photocopied Lonely Planet guide. Be warned, if this is a photocopy, it may self-destruct in five seconds”) But after a while, the random jokes and attempts at humor began to annoy me a bit. Now I think I understand them again. He knew that after seeing things like the Choeng Ek killing fields, you need stupid jokes like that. You can't make yourself feel better about witnessing what was left of a genocide that ended a little under 30 years ago. But every little attempt at cheering up helps.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for going there and writing so movingly about a history too many of us forget.