In amongst the parched, brittle grass and the flourishing deep green Chankiri trees, I could hear the songs of flocks of birds all around me.
Hidden in the trees their lullabies drifted onto the lake in the gentle breeze. The leaves rustled ever so quietly, and those two things were the only sounds of life slowly doing its thing.
In every direction you looked, a sea of mute, swaying people stood around. Listless and expressions of solemnity written all over their body language. They stared around their respective patches of earth, listening to their own sets of headphones, pressing buttons on what resembled the old-fashioned Nokia “brick” mobile phones of the 1990‘s.
Me, I’d slipped mine off. I wanted to see this place for what it was now, not just for what it used to be..
Choeung Ek, better known as The Killing Fields, is the most well-known and visited of the 300+ sites that are dotted all over Cambodia. If you are unfamiliar with the civil war of the 1970‘s and the brutal reign of its leader Pol Pot (just like I was because in the UK we were only ever taught about conflicts and wars relating to our own country) then take a quick read here for a timeline of events, or here for lots more details.
Approximately a quarter of Cambodia’s population (around 2 million people) were murdered, all but a few without trial or valid reasoning, forcibly taken to their places of execution. These locations were the sites of mass graves, along quiet dirt tracks out of the villages and towns, in farmlands. They were soon labeled “The Killing Fields”.
Trucks would collect everyone and anyone; women, men, children, even those who were pregnant or carrying newborns. The trucks were covered so people would not be able to know where they were going, and if they found a crack in the framework the thick blanket of darkness would scupper any hope of orientation.
The convoys would make their way to one of these fields, coming to a halt at the designated truck stop, in front of the office buildings. Yes, the army had made a structured system to not only process the “arrivals”, but needed barns in which to hold them, while they retrieved the weapons that would kill them, and prepared the chemicals that would dissolve their bodies faster in the graves. They had built specific rooms for making their process all the more efficient, at the expense of innocent lives.
In the Memorial Stupa, hundreds of skulls are encased in a floor to ceiling glass cabinet. Small coloured stickers correspond with causes of death. The overwhelming majority were by bullet holes or a blow to the head. The executioners’ tools included Neanderthal like weapons, such as stakes, poles, arrows and large cart axles used to kill instantly.
For some, their pain was not over quickly. Few were tortured for being in defiance of the Pol Pot regime, others, simply for having a beard, or wearing glasses. It was a game for the executioners.
For those with their lives spared on their first night, they were kept alive to toil from dawn to dusk on the surrounding fields, forced to meet unfair quotas of farming rice. At the time Cambodia was hell-bent on high production, and insistent on not taking in supplies from outside the country, convinced it could work its people to death before they could even get a chance to feed themselves from it.
It is said that any villages or people living near to these fields, were none the wiser to what really went on in them. Large speakers were consistently played with patriotic music or army training material to mask the sounds of gunshots. The camp itself was pitched as training grounds for the army.
There are 129 mass graves in Choeung Ek, holding up to nearly 9000 people. They show up as large circular depressions in the earth, the contours rising around the pits, like a real-life scene of a battleships game. The caretakers regularly do collections of any bones or clothes that surface, with femurs or collarbones uncovering themselves on the worn pathways.
Dotted around the graves the caretakers have two small glass boxes. One displays the clothing regularly found, which is mistaken for rags bar the select pieces they have carefully arranged to resemble a child’s pair of shorts, or a woman’s blouse, next to the tiny baby shoe at the bottom of the case. The other box shows the bones that are found; an overwhelming collection of teeth and jaw bones prove the most sinister in relating these brown coloured objects to human remains.
Heading away from all of this, a straight path trails to the end of the site, and along a flimsy wire fence with multiple holes, the other side the lake. This large, rectangular body of water is what has naturally formed over the decades since its crimes, hiding almost half of the sites graves with it. The people in the pits will forever be laid to rest under the water.
It was here I decided to slip off my headphones for a while. I sat at one of the many stone benches and looked out at the lake, unsure of what struck me the most, the history of this place, or watching everyone else silently listening to what I was listening to, collectively not needing our own words to agree on the terror that was once felt here. Despite these thoughts, I could not push down those of peacefulness and calmness, the two words repeating themselves in my head for what I saw it standing as today.
From this point on I have been stumped for what to say, staring at my words countless times and not feeling right for leaving it as it was.
I feel almost guilty for wanting to say how nice it was there as if by doing this I am in some way invalidating the horror it is known for. But after thinking about it some more, I feel grateful to have felt peaceful there. Yes, I walked above graves. Yes, I listened to every single number of tapes on the audio tour. Yes, I stood around, absorbing everything that was left, visualising what it once looked like, trying to understand what it would have been like to be alive at that time. But yes, I also took off my headphones, brought myself back to the present moment and let myself see with a clear perspective, what the fields were today, at that moment.
They were lush with fruit trees, and the old Chankiri were thriving on the banks of the lake. Birds were flying low against the water, and chirping amongst the branches all around the perimeter of the lake. The gentle gusts of wind were just enough to ease the blazing heat from the midday sun. But most strangely, the energy of those fields had changed. They were no longer a place emanating depression, fright or death and endings. I felt at ease, again dare I say it, enjoyment for being out in the open and in nature.
I know some of you reading this may still be struggling to understand; “Louise, you go to a place of such trauma and negativity, and you enjoyed it”? I know, how sadistic does that sound, but let me leave you with one last thing.
Cambodia’s history has not all been filled with war, poverty, and unrest. Granted, The Khmer Rouge brought about a short but intensely destructive 4 years, and it will be remembered forever, being the most well-known of their wars in Cambodian history.
But they are a country trying to move forward.
They are moving forward.
The darkest days have passed, and to dwell only on the past will bring no peace to those involved and no progress to a once stagnant nation. Sure, every Cambodian you meet will have at least one person they lost to the regime and countless stories of those years. But it’s not all they will talk about; it’s not the focus of their lives. They want to move forward, and upwards. They smile, and talk of how their lives have improved, or how family members have moved to the capital to earn a better wage, and how their children are no longer born into a world of fear.
If you have been to any country that has seen unrest or talked to people who have been through war, natural disaster or trauma, you will see the light in them. You will feel the resilience in their nature and see they are happy, not in spite of their trauma, but because of it. If you leave things and people alone to just get on with living, soon enough you will see life just happens all around you.
It is the same as The Killing Fields. Just because something bad happened in the past, it doesn’t stop life from reclaiming what it knows is inherently the most natural thing to do. If you allow your perspective to change, you will see the beauty of life triumphing over the ruin.
Below is a journal entry I wrote a few hours after visiting Choeung Ek, with the final sentence summing it up beautifully:
“I want to start by saying how lovely and peaceful it is there. I know – that’s not what I should be saying, even I’ve struggled to get my head around what I want to describe it as. Despite its atrocious past and somewhat unnerving presence, it is very peaceful and calm. Through breaks in the audio guide I could hear the songs of birds all around, loud, and flying freely from tree to tree. The lake is calm and tranquil, despite the pits below, and butterflies are in abundance over the grass that surrounds the graves. The strange quietness created by the collective listening of audio guides while we all move from one point to the next, somehow adds to the calmness. Part of me wanted to turn off the headphones and just wander, listening to the trees rustle and the birds sing. This was once a beautiful place before it was poisoned, and it felt like nature had reclaimed its place in the cycle of things”.