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A film montage I shot during my visit to the Cambodian Killing Fields in early 2006. The song is called “Dusk” by Canadian artist Matthew Good.
Just one hour’s flight from Bangkok, Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, and shares much in commom with other major urban centres of Southeast Asia.
It’s loud, swarming with motorbikes, tuk-tuk drivers, and piles of plastic wrappers piled behind rusted tin dwellings, all nestled amongst countless hotels, neon signs, and a melee of citizens.
For many people, Cambodia conjures images of genocide, specifically the terrible reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
My fiance Karen and I ask our taxi driver to drop us in “The Lake District” — which sounds much more prestigious than the name implies. Picture a crowded alley of guesthouses, moneychangers, and monkeys screeching from the rooftops of the single story buildings.
Most of the guesthouses look out onto Boeung Kak Lake, an emerald green body of water thick with snails and garbage. After the first night’s sunset over the city, I forgave everything.
Our first stop the following day allowed us to delve into the troubled history of the country, which seemingly consists of little more than constant warfare and occupation.
For many people, Cambodia conjures images of genocide, specifically the terrible reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979, he instituted an agrarian reform policy based on Maoist ideology that saw the forced relocation, torture, and murder of at least a million people.
With these facts in mind, Karen and I rode out to a former site of mass slaughter — Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields).
It’s difficult to describe what we found. I could offer a list: empty grass fields, signs marking the mass graves that appeared to innocently indent the earth, pieces of bone poking out of the path amid tattered remnants of clothing, skulls packed miles high, their hollow sockets uttering in silence the only question they can fathom, why?
We pass a large tree offering momentary shade from the sun. A sign beneath it describes how children were beaten against its solid trunk, before being tossed into the graves with their mothers. Why do these things happen? The rest of the trees have no reply.
We move on to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, known as S21 during the Khmer Rouge. It had been a school before they turned it into a prison, knocking out the walls between classrooms, piling brick after brick to fashion tiny cells for “political enemies” to be interrogated and tortured before being sent to the Killing Fields.
Nowadays, the Cambodian government opted to let the prison stand as a testament to the genocide, altering little since it was liberated by the Vietnamese army in 1979.
The grounds are particularly disturbing.
I enter a classroom turned torture chamber, and come upon a rusted metal bed, with arm and leg chains still hanging from both ends, a pair of large metal pinchers suspended on the mesh. The concrete walls are gouged with holes, some from the fingers of time, some perhaps from the fingers of prisoners trying to escape. Dark spots on the ceiling whisper blood.
Above the bed a large photograph is mounted, depicting the scene the Vietnamese found upon entering this particular room. I have trouble discerning what is lying on the bed in the image, due to the thick swathes of black on the floor.
I realise I’m staring at a mangled body. The very same body that now lies buried in the courtyard along with 14 others who were found in similar conditions. In total, the prison “processed” some 14,000 people. Only a handful survived. I leave the compound with the taste of ash in my mouth.
A few days later, Karen and I head south, to the beaches of Sihanoukville. It had been a while since we’d seen the ocean, and we could tell it missed us. We checked into our guesthouse, stopping only to change into our swimming attire, before hitting the lazy waves that rolled into the shore. The water felt like slipping under an electric blanket, the warmest ocean I’ve swam in — perhaps ever. Yet the feeling of comfort failed to last as we left the surf and had scarcely settled to dry on the sand.
Immediately, we were confronted with a steady string of hawkers — women offering fruit from the baskets on their heads, children slyly slipping bracelets over our wrists before demanding money, and legless men crawling along the shore with quiet determination, reminding us just how poor Cambodia continues to be. A part of me wished to dole out bills in the hope of assuaging my guilt (whether founded or not), but I knew this was no lasting solution.
A part of me wished to dole out bills in the hope of assuaging my guilt (whether founded or not), but I knew this was no lasting solution.
But then I heard of the Children’s Art Gallery, a local initiative started by a visiting English painter who discovered that poor Cambodian children would much prefer to paint and sell their artwork, rather than beg or hawk for change. I asked the painter, Roger Dixon, if he would mind doing an interview. With his white ponytail and eyes shining, he gladly accepted.
“Things are getting better here,” he said, reflecting on Cambodia’s dark history. “I’ve been coming here for years and it’s changing.” He revealed how little more than a year earlier, he had found himself bandaging up the wounds of the local children because no one else would. When the children saw his paintings they asked if they could create as well. Almost a year later, they’ve sold hundreds of paintings and the children exhibit a renewed enthusiasm for life.
They still hawk their bracelets, of course, but they do it with that smile that can only come with developing self respect, rather than self pity. And certainly, none are more deserving of hope than Cambodia’s children, something Roger Dixon must have decided when he quietly began the art program.
He waved to us as we left the makeshift beach gallery, five original paintings under our arms.
The contrast is stark: on the one hand, the malicious sway of dictators such as Pol Pot, murderer of too many to name, killed for reasons uncertain, not by his own hand, but through the hands of the hundreds of generals, soldiers, guards, and regular people who believed in such death — or if they didn’t, failed to recognise the gathering darkness before it was too late.
On the other hand, there are the silent ones like Roger Dixon who dedicate their lives to the small, significant tasks that better the lives of those around them, in subtle ways that are difficult to pinpoint, yet echo nonetheless. These people demand no recognition, no attention, beyond the sense that in the only way they know how, they’ve made a difference.
And that is the only reason I can step to the edge of a mass grave and still believe in humanity.
“How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.”
— C.S. Lewis
Have you ever visited the site of former genocide? Please share you experience, or thoughts on this topic.