Friday, 31 October 2008

Halloween at Choeung Ek

Halloween. A fitting day to visit Choeung Ek, more commonly known as the Killing Fields, to remember the thousands who were massacred there during the Cambodian Khmer Rouge genocide of 1975 - 1979. It is hard to remember people you never knew, and hard to come to terms with the low depths that homo sapien is, regrettably, capable of.

The Killing Fields are not a manicured memorial. Only half of the 129 mass graves have been excavated. The graves are overgrown puddles with just a few notice boards detailing where the tool shed and chemical supply (to cover the stench of the dead) used to be located. Nine thousand skulls rest inside the stupa, many showing the marks indicative of their method of slaughter. To save bullets the Khmer Rouge used hoes and pick axes to bludgeon their innocent victims to death.

How did the world stand by and let this happen? We met a British couple who had back-packed around Thailand in the 1970s. They couldn’t get in to Cambodia but didn’t know what was going on. Why didn’t people know? Were governments around the world making noise to drown out the atrocities in the same way that the Khmer Rouge played loud music to drown out the sound of those being executed? Governments must have known because their embassies in Phnom Penh remained empty for 45 months. Three and a half years.

The human fascination with the morbid is evident in the way that we enjoy dressing up as skeletons and splashing on fake blood at Halloween, and in the way that people flock to Tuol Sleng torture and detention centre. Many of the Killing Fields victims - civil servants, lawyers, academics - were first tortured at Tuol Sleng, a former secondary school. I cannot understand why the torturers catalogued each of their victims, ripping out their stomachs, painting a number on their chest and taking a photograph. Nor can I understand the people who want to go and look at the photographs taken by the torturers of their registered victims. I wonder if they’ll have their photo taken next to the photo of the dead victims? At the Killing Fields people pondered aloud “What shall I do in this photo?” It’s a dilemma isn’t it. Having stepped over and on fragments of bone and discarded clothes of the victims, the last thing I wanted was a photograph of my grinning mug next to a mass grave, with or without a stomach.

The legacy of the atrocities prevails. Landmines. There is approximately one amputee for every 290 people in Cambodia Amputees peddle books on crutches and play music for tourists. They are the lucky ones. I don’t know how others survive, such as the man crawling down the street with his four year old daughter carrying the shopping bags behind. It is heart breaking to see.

As the ghosts of the world come out to play tonight let us hope that we will never let the likes of the Khmer Rouge happen again. Let us also hope that the thirteen countries that are still producing antipersonnel mines promptly cease production. Victims of landmines and the Khmer Rouge R.I.P.

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