The ride to Choeung Ek takes about half an hour by tuk-tuk. The taller buildings of Phnom Penh give way to squat structures lining the main road. English quickly disappears from signs. Cattle are everywhere. The tuk-tuk jostled for position on the four lane road with heavy trucks and scooters laden with haphazard loads. We would often find ourselves riding on the shoulder to avoid the bigger faster vehicles; Cambodian roads are like the Savannah.
By the time we arrived at Choeung Ek, one of the notorious "killing fields" used by the Khmer Rouge, our eyes and mouths were full of coarse red dust. We paid our admission, much of which goes to the Japanese company that now operates the memorial at a profit, and received our slick audio guides. In contrast to Tuol Sleng, the site at Choeung Ek has much more interpretive content, most of it in audio form, but also in a small museum housing artifacts and photos. As well as segments describing landmarks on the site, the guides offer additional background information about life under the Khmer Rouge. One can sit and listen to survivor stories from the period of the genocide, although of course they are not survivors of Choeung Ek itself.
I wandered the grounds by myself, struck, as all visitors are, by the contrast between the darkest excess of humanity and the idyllic orchard where it took place. There were butterflies everywhere and chickens foraging free alongside the trail. At the back of the compound, past a large pond concealing unexhumed graves, there were a cluster of rough shacks, separated only by a few feet of distance and a weathered wire fence. A rooster stood guard over an opening in the fence near the ground, where the soil sloped away to let animals pass. Children ran back and forth along the perimetre, hustling for dollars in exchange for photos. A couple had found their way in, perhaps accompanying the group of men who were casting a net in the pond. You would not know to look at it that around twenty thousand people were systematically murdered here.
The larger bones from the exhumed graves are now housed in a towering memorial stupa, preserved and sorted by age and sex. The remnants continue to surface between the cycles of wet and dry. At first I could not see any, but then I did, and soon it was all I could see. A large molar, a tattered rag, a piece of a femur, curved triangular fragments like grey corn chips.
The victims were typically bludgeoned to death with whatever was handy, an axe or a hoe, or an iron bar. They would be led to the edge of the pit, hands bound behind their backs, blindfolded in the dark, revolutionary anthems and the hum of a diesel generator reverberating in their ears. Sometimes their throats were cut as well, but there seemed to be no set technique so long as the result was consistent. The DDT scattered over the bodies in the pits would finish off any who were not sufficiently wounded and helped minimize the stench of decay. The executioners worked all night, butchering shipments of inmates as the arrived by truck, but as the pace of the killings increased with the depth of the regime's repression, they built a holding cell to deal with the volumes of condemned. The cell, demolished for parts shortly after the fall of the regime, had double walls of wooden planks to prevent any light from entering. While the victims were typically told that they were being taken to a "new house," many would have had no doubts about their fate, and would have spent their last hellish hours in total darkness.
We left in a sombre mood, the heat of the early afternoon enhancing the emotional exhaustion of taking all of this in. As we hurtled down the highway once more, I was struck by the fact that we had not really been to "The Killing Fields," because such sites were scattered all over the country, many of them still inaccessible because of unexploded ordinances or remote geography. What we had just seen was really just a sample of a pattern that was repeated over and over again to reach a devastating toll, to scar a generation, and to break the soul of a nation. It is frustrating to be able to reflect on this only via translation, to be ever at the mercy of language. Unable to speak Khmer, the most we get from the Cambodians we interact with is: "Have you seen the Killing Fields? Very sad. Very sad." The best you can do is agree with that pronounced awkward caricature of empathy, a solemn nod and serious gaze.