“How strange it is to be anything at all.” – Neutral Milk Hotel
I dragged my family on a 6-hour trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a city with “nothing to see”. Whoever told me that were wrong. Here, my eyes have been opened. Not to the atrocities of war, but to the oppression, struggles and survival of humanity in its darkest hours.
We visited this place on a glorious sunny day. Birds chirped and chickens clucked as the wind breezed through the orchard, hugging the path with a calming, yet lively ambience. And I realized, on many people’s last days in this field, the sky was just as beautiful as this, because whoever above there didn’t care about human sufferings. On the trees, which they were hung on and their babies were flung into, traces of brain scraps and skull fractions were long gone, only carpenter ants moving diligently, trying to survive.
1.7 million Cambodians didn’t.
I’ve read about deaths, learned about grief, planned my own funeral, and accepted mortality as part of life. Yet I’ve never been around the deceased like this, knowing them only by the numbers, their skulls, their clothes, their harrowing photos. I couldn’t imagine being brutally killed for stealing 2 bananas, for having soft hands, for teaching kids literacy, or for coming back all the way from France with a dream to rebuild my war-torn country.
I was walking among them, literally seeing through them more than they ever did themselves, my eyes sunken in tears. But still I couldn’t imagine.
Did they catch a glimpse of the luminous sunshine as their eyes were gouged out?
Did they feel the wind flow through as their intestines were cut wide open?
These questions rushed through my head as I paid my tribute at the stupa, looking them in their eyes (or what used to be). My Dad advised me not to, worrying the image would haunt me in my sleep. But childhood fears pass easily. It’s simple to be scared of skeletons, zombies, and corpses, but at the end of the day they are just puppets. The true horrors are the fiend we carry inside ourselves, waiting to be set off by a trance of indoctrination, a prologue of fear, a bout of cowardice. We tread on thin ice, condemn the wrongdoings that we didn’t do, and vindicate the ones we did. One lapse, and we “slipped” to the other side.
I don’t believe in dehumanizing criminals because it negates their sins away from their consciousness. I didn’t see the “evils” on the faces of the Angkar rulers. I saw educators, intellectuals, rubber sandal wearers, just like the people they ordered to kill. I saw the “everyday-looking” grandfather and grandmother denying their crimes and passing the blame. The brainwashed Khmer Rouge youths, who smashed babies while laughing and making the parents watch, are probably rehabilitated into the many kind, hospital Cambodians I met. Genocides happen because people choose to kill. Isn’t it more frightening to see how humanity can be sunk to, by a mere mortal and corporeal being?
As the car turned the corner and the past was out of my sight (was it ever, though?), I saw a street cafeteria with a pool table named The Living Fields. A chuckle escaped me. That name wouldn’t do well in America, but I guess people who have faced death, face life in a different way. These days, life is finding humor in the little things instead of escaping terror, is having to work in the sultry weather instead of dreading for a new day, is trying to stay afloat instead of struggling to stay alive. Pol Pot’s daughter is living an ordinary life in her father’s once war-torn country. One of the survivors wrote that he’d rather the money for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal go to education and infrastructure. These days, life is seeing hope for the future over despair from the past. Because while resilience may be quieter than repression, in the end it will always prevail.
Top pictures: At Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, with Chum Mey and Bou Meng, 2 out of 7 survivors out of 20,000 Cambodians imprisoned at Security Prison S-21.
Bottom pictures: at Choeung Ek Killing Fields (taken from the Internet). They speak for themselves.