“Surely all people were made for each other. To join in together when the days turn to dust. So let the prison walls crumble and the borders all tumble. There’s a place for us all here. And ain’t it enough?” -OCMS
Choeung Ek, Cambodia
Rich green grass sprouting from gentle rolling hills swayed softly in the breeze. Fluffy white clouds moved slowly across a blue sky. In the distance wildflowers grew at the base of fence posts. Their yellow and white pedals stretching up to catch the sunlight outside of the shadows. Paces away a bird dipped and banked overhead, perching on a nearby tree branch, it sang a song while the tree’s leafy branches rocked beneath the breeze. At my feet a butterfly danced and fluttered around my ankles. Avoiding my steps it drifted off to skim over the wild grasses.
I sighed. The expulsion of air catching in my chest.
This was a terrible place.
This pain in my chest, this ripping of emotion through my heart and lungs was a feeling I’d felt before. A feeling I’d felt brought on by places. I’d felt it before walking passed the ovens of Dachau. My footsteps echoing through the gas chambers of a place where a country thought the solution to its problems was through the act of extermination. I felt it again on the silent fields of Gettysburg. Gazing out at a spot where countrymen, brothers, fathers, and sons, depleted of powder and shot set upon each other with the butts of rifles, stones from the earth, and bayonets. I felt it merely hours before as I walked through S-21, the high school turned prison and interrogation center. Where a regime gone mad with paranoia spared no one of torture. For all my love of “places” I understand the importance of visiting the ones that hurt to look upon. Now the dull ache in my chest continued as I tried to perceive yet another one of the world’s most darkest places. All the books I’d read, documentaries I’d watched, or pictures I’d seen could not have prepared me for Choeung Ek: Cambodia’s largest Killing Field.
I was standing in an unfathomably large mass grave.
The Khmer Rouge following a lengthy civil war, ousted Cambodia’s government and installed their communist ideals upon the country. Citizens were forced from cities and made to work the fields of the countryside, in a fantastical vision of a pure self sustaining agrarian society. It wasn’t long before the Khmer Rouge began the interrogations. Paranoia set in, they saw enemies everywhere. The educated, former government officials, the rich, the successful all posed a danger to their revolution. Waves of executions followed and the madness only got worse. Doctors, professors, people with glasses, people with soft hands, murdered. The children of the condemned executed so as not to come of age and seek revenge for their parent’s murder. During a span of five years it is estimated over 2.2 million people were murdered under the Khmer Rouge regime.
One not need be an archaeologist or crime scene investigator to uncover Choeung Ek’s dark past. The gentle rolling hills were not gentle at all, but sharp, unnatural mounds lumped together by continuous churning and reburying of the earth. Looking closely at the soil, you can see fragments of bone protruding from the dirt. At the base of the leafy tree tatters of clothing can be seen sticking out of the earth, tangled in the tree’s roots. The victim’s remains, too numerous to be exhumed entirely come to the surface every year following seasonal rains. Every month, workers collect newly surfaced pieces of bone and fragments of clothing and place them in glass boxes around the site. At the center of the field rests a massive stupa. I’ve seen many a stupa through my travels in Asia and Mongolia but none were like this. It stood tall, white and gold, the center, a hollowed out tower of shelves encased in glass. Each level holding row upon row of human skulls. The uncountable victims of Choeung Ek, of all ages and genders stared back through the glass in the most somber memorial I’d ever seen. Circling the monument, it was difficult to look upon. Many skulls of the victims bearing signs of grisly and painful deaths. Staring back at them my chest hurts trying to conceive those final moments. The whine of a diesel generator, the blaring of propaganda music, many with their last ounces of strength are made to dig their own graves.
“Never Again,” those two words usually echo on some monument or inscription at the end of these terrible places. But I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve read the news. The Holocaust, Cambodia, weren’t the beginning just as they weren’t the end. It continued in places like the Balkans, Armenia, Central Africa, Iraq and the Sudan. What can we do to make those two words seem not so empty? The beauty of our differences, the evolution of culture, language, religion and ideas brought to a screeching halt when humanity becomes too drunk with power and too blind with hate. I believe the preservation of these dark places exist for a reason. Not to be visited and locked up in your conscious but to come away from these places and share what you’ve learned, what you’ve seen, what you now know man can do to one another. Tell your friends, your family, complete strangers. Knowledge and education is the best weapon against making “Never Again” not such a broken promise. I share my experiences with you in Choeung Ek now for that reason. If only that were enough.
“Ain’t it enough, to live by the ways of the world? To be part of the picture, whatever it’s worth. Throw your arms around each other, and love one another. For it’s only one life that we’ve got and ain’t it enough?”
*If you’d like to learn more about the Cambodian Genocide and life under the Khmer Rouge there is an amazing and moving book called “First They Killed My Father,” a memoir by survivor Loung Ung.