September 21, 2007

Cambodian Killing Fields
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Would I suggest a visit to the Killing Fields of Choeung EK? In a word: No.

Background

A brief explanation, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The Killing Fields were a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Communist regime Khmer Rouge, which had ruled the country since 1975. The massacres ended in 1979, when Communist Vietnam invaded the country and toppled the Khmers. Estimates of the number of dead range from 1.7 to 2.3 million out of a population of around seven million.

The Khmer Rouge judicial process, for minor or political crimes, began with a warning from the Angkar, the government of Cambodia under the regime. People receiving more than two warnings were sent for "re-education," which meant near-certain death. People were often encouraged to confess to Angkar their "pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes" (which usually included some kind of free-market activity, or having had contact with a foreign source, such as a U.S. missionary, or international relief or government agency, contact with any foreigner, or with the outside world at all), being told that Angkar would forgive them and "wipe the slate clean." This meant being taken away to a place such as Choeung Ek for torture and/or execution.

The executed were buried in mass graves. In order to save ammunition, executions were often carried out using hammers, axe handles, spades, or sharpened bamboo sticks. Some victims were required to dig their own graves; their weakness often meant that they were unable to dig very deep. The soldiers who carried out the executions were mostly young men or women from peasant families.

The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chams (Muslim Cambodians), Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution.

Choeung Ek

Some 14km southwest of central Phnom Penh is the Choeung Ek Killing Field, where approximately 17,000 men, women, and children were executed by the Khmer Rouge. In the center of 129 mass graves (43 of which have never been disinterred) is a Memorial Stupa, erected in 1988. Inside the memorial more than 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind a column of glass.

Walking the surprisingly small grounds, Tatiana and I couldn't help but notice the fragments of human bone and clothing pushing up through the dirt around the clusters of disinterred pits (each no more than a meter or two deep). The excavation of the communal graves looked like scarring from an aerial bombardment.

Easily the most jarring moment of the afternoon was the discovery of human teeth on one of the dirt paths Tatiana and I were walking on, between the grave pits. I noticed one, then started noticing others, half-buried in the dirt. I did the math in my head: About 30 teeth in a human jaw, multiplied by 17,000 fatalities—over half a million teeth would be on the grounds.

I returned the victim's teeth to the earth, knowing that these weren't the type of souvenirs most people would be interested in collecting on their tour through Cambodia—myself included.

Tatiana and I were both generally disappointed by the lack of original structures present. Over there's a sign that says were the trucks stopped, then another that says where a weapons shed was kept, and another where the detainment facility once stood. There's currently nothing left remaining from the 70s, except graves. You would also think that with so many tourists visiting the site these days that someone with English as their first language would help to re-translate many of the poorly worded plaques.

Mood Killer

What really ruined the sobriety of the Killing Fields for Tatiana and me were the whining packs of begging children roaming the grounds, ambushing visitors. These ruthless children will try everything in the playbook to break your heart to squeeze a dollar out of you—and when that doesn't work, they'll switch into "pay me and I'll leave you alone" mode. I kid you not, they actually said that.

Aggressive beggars, be them children or adults, really rub me the wrong way, and piss Tatiana off something fierce (as it brings back memories of daily life in Peru). I have a finite amount of compassion, and believe me when I tell you that the impoverished conditions and outstretched hands that I've seen in the past twenty-something months of travel have hardened me the likes of which I never knew possible. You must live it to truly understand it, and Tatiana certainly understands—she's had over 30 years of dealing with bandits and beggars.

I would never give anything to an aggressive, begging child—it only encourages the behavior. Just like harassing vendors peddling crap on the streets or beaches, they wouldn't be doing it if people weren't buying it (for some unknown reason). The same goes for these children. If tourists weren't paying them for photographs and quietly weeping onto the dollars placed into their dirty, outstretched palms, I might have been able to better reflect on the tragedy that occurred so recently at Choeung Ek. Instead, the moment, and the silence, were ruined.

Not only do I blame the children and tourists, but I point a scolding finger at the absence of security on the site (that should be preventing this from occurring). Tatiana and I didn't pay the equivalent of our night's accommodations to be harassed while we wandered in the rain. This is not only a failing on the part of Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, but on the Cambodian society as a whole.

As I've pondered before, I wonder what these children will grow up to be? The same children pimped out by someone who collects their dollars at the end of the day, and the children with no self respect who manipulate the emotions of others. Thieves, scammers, and tuk tuk drivers, that's what.

And With nearly a third of the Cambodian populous exterminated 30 years ago, it saddens me to see so many of the new generation growing up without any pride.

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