Monday, January 20, 2014

Grief on the Killing Fields

This is The Witness Tree, which stands in the middle of the Killing Fields outside Phomh Penh. We spent yesterday morning drenched in sorrow, visiting this place and hearing the long, harrowing story of how the Khmer Rouge killed about 2,000,000 Cambodians in over 400 locations or Killing Fields. This particular one yielded about 8,000 bodies from the mass graves you see excavated here. All of this happened during our lifetimes, unimaginable brutality, where most people were arrested, tortured, brought here at night, clubbed into these graves, and buried alive.

It is difficult to take it all in, the warped politics that made this possible, the terror described to us by those who were here. We walked in silence around this place, many of us having to go and cry for awhile. It was overwhelmingly heartbreaking.

The skulls and bones and clothing that have been excavated far are all on display in a glass tower at the center of the field. The faces stare out at us, and our hearts break once again. The location along the river could not be lovelier, a big meadow with trees, flowers, butterflies, birds singing. It is 15 kilometers outside the city, and could be a park or a farm, but it is now forever a place of grief, a place where death won. As we walked around, bones and rags of clothing were under our feet, still emerging from underground

We next visited a famous prison inside the city, where prisoners were taken, tortured, made to confess, and then sent to execution. A former high school, it was made into a huge prison, 3 stories tall. The cell below is quite luxurious for one person, except for the chains on the floor and the fact that the windows were boarded over. Each of these rooms had a dead person in it when the prison was closed and the photo on the wall is an actual photo of each mangled body.

We once again heard excruciating stories of the tortures inflicted here. Some of the buildings had photographs of all the 8000 people killed here, photos taken when each person had their arms bound behind their backs and were about to die. The KR documented everything they did. There is not a single smile or hopeful face in all these thousands. I can only say that I will never forget this place or these stories.

Barbed wire was wrapped across the buildings at every level to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

We even met a man who survived this prison because he was able to repair typewriters and sewing machines for the KR. He is now 86 years old and has written a book about his experiences.

In the afternoon things lightened up. We went to the National Art Museum in Phnom Penh, which housed about 1,000 wonderful sculptures from Hindu history, mostly from the Ramayana. We shopped at some wonderful little artistic shops near the museum. We went to the famous Russian Market here, a huge indoor bazaar selling almost everything imaginable.

To cap the day, we had dinner at a stunning restaurant (Khmer Suen) with beautiful food, open air dining, live music. Our dinner guest was a young Cambodian woman who is working on a kind of truth and reconciliation commission here, trying to get the people to be willing to testify in court about what they knew and saw during the killings. One shocking thing is that the Khmer Rouge is essentially still in power here. Many of the top cabinet ministers are the same who were in charge of the torture prisons and the soldiers on the killing fields. They sacrificed Pol Pot and a few others, so now they all "pretend" that the perpetrators are taken care of, but these young women we have spoken to say the exact opposite is true. The real bad guys are still in charge. It is chilling, and we are in awe of the courage of the young people here who are trying to fight back against huge corruption, rigged elections, and ongoing repression. What a day!

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Location:Sothea Ros Blvd,Phnom Penh,Cambodia

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