This is not one of my frothy posts. But history matters and I wanted to describe what I saw today.
Today we visited The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, known by most as one of the sites of The Killing Fields. It was a somber and haunting location. Michael and I were the first visitors of the day, and walking through the memorial complex alone added to the weight of the experience. The location, about nine miles outside of city center, was used by Pol Pot as one of his many “killing fields” – areas for executions performed and mass graves created from 1975-1978 during the Khmer Rouge regime. Over one million Cambodians were murdered this way, and many more through forced labor, imprisonment and torture, and starvation.
Walking through the memorial complex, I was horrified to see fragments of bone and cloth (clothing scraps and cloth used to bind hands) and intact teeth littering the ground.
There are signs posted along the walkway warning visitors to not step on bones.
There was so much horror committed here that remains are still being found and there are graves that have not yet been excavated. To this day, especially during the rainy season, more human remains surface. Every few months, the staff of the memorial complex will sweep the area and collect the remains, adding them to existing piles of human bones and teeth placed around the complex.
By one of the mass graves a tree was marked as the “killing tree against which executioners beat children.” The language used is not strong enough to convey what actually occurred here. Soldiers smacked babies against the tree to crack their skulls before dumping them in the mass grave. Visitors have hung cloth bracelets on the bark of the trunk to show their respect and the tree’s colorful and festive appearance stands in stark contrast to what it represents.
In 1988, the Cambodian government built a memorial stupa at Choeung Ek to house the remains that were discovered at the site. There are seventeen levels in the memorial stupa, making it the largest memorial stupa commemorating the atrocities committed in the killing fields.
The first ten levels house almost 9,000 skulls. If you look closely, you can discern the way each human being was killed. A crack where a machete struck or a hole from a hammer. The upper levels house arm and leg bones.
It’s hard to believe this kind of evil happened. But it did and it’s important to acknowledge it.