A motorbike takes us through southern Phnom Penh, a low-built, barely-bustling city, whose traffic is more casual than chaotic; our driver goes slowly and carefully along the road’s edge, past a row of assemblage plant sweatshops which, at 4:30 p.m., are letting out thousands of female workers in a scene identical to one I’ve seen throughout Central America. When we turn from the pavement onto a red-clay road, crossing a broken wooden bridge, our driver stops to purchase color-coordinated surgical masks to protect our lungs from the dust let this be a lesson also, my mask didn’t exactly fit me so if you know you’ll be needing some face or lung protection it could be best to look for the best mask for you, before leaving for your travels. Our driver then continues on through a string of villages until we reach the mass gravesite known as “The Killing Fields.”
We contract a guide, smiling and knowledgeable, in his mid-20s, who takes us first to the giant Buddhist stupa, in which are housed shelf upon shelf of human skulls, a giant white spire of death and rebirth rising from the very pits where the bones were found in 1981.
There are 8,985 skulls, he says, less than half of the total number of victims, the rest of which remain buried in surrounding fields. The stupa is designed to give the victims’ spirits some kind of rest, since they were not cremated in typical Buddhist fashion. It is also meant to shock an awe visitors like us, who cannot get over how human beings continue to commit genocide.
And yet, there they are – axed, hammered, and bashed-in craniums. There is also a tree “against which executioners beat children,” for sport, we are told. One answer as to “how” lies in the fact that the Khmer Rouge soldiers were trained and brainwashed by the KR Cadres at a very early age, turning them into killing machines, fueled by raging teenage hormones. Our guide shows us the rubber sandals (made from Chinese tires) of Pol Pot’s “soldiers,” pointing out how small they are, since they were often no more than 11 or 15 years old.
“They had educated and transformed young people and the adolescent whose hearts are pure, gentle and modest into odious executioners who dared to kill the innocent and even their own parents, relatives or friends,” says one interpretive sign.
The Killing Fields tourist site is actually only one of 344 gravesites across the country, where 19,471 burial pits have been found to date, several hundred of which are here at the most famous of them all. Estimates of the total number killed during the Khmer Rouge rampage of the late 1970s range from 750,000 to 2.5 million. These estimates do not include the hundreds of thousands murdered by the United States’ carpet-bombing of the countryside during the early 1970s, which not only displaced millions, but also paved the way for the entrance to power of Pol Pot and his fellow psychopaths.
At Tuol Sleng Torture and Genocide Museum, curators apparently gave up trying to stop the graffiti on the displayed portrait of Pol Pot, where declarations of “CUNT!” “Shit-for-brains!” and “Hell for 10,000 years!” were accompanied by slightly more intelligent messages such as, “If history teaches us anything, it is that we do not learn from our mistakes.”
Today, in the 21st Century, bombs continue to fall around the world, there is still genocide in Africa, torture, wars. Here in Cambodia, a legacy of landmines and nightmares-for-memories remains, but at least there is some modicum of peace, some rest after decades of suffering. And though I am told that the government is sliding toward dictatorship, I am happy to be here now, to see the smiles, including those of the children playing and doing cartwheels at the Killing Fields, oblivious it seems, to the mass graves beneath them.
* * *
Click here to learn how you can help the victims of genocide in the Sudan.