“My aunt and my uncle,” Sakona offers somberly when I finally ask the question: “Did any of your relatives die here?”
The “here’” is the chilling Choeung Ek on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, one of the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Sakona is my guide for the day, and I wonder how he does it. Coming back day after day, setting foot on the spot were some 20,000 Cambodians were butchered, including his relatives, in the most miserable of ways under the cruel iron rule of Pol Pot.
There are over 200 of these Killing Fields scattered throughout Cambodia, where some 1.7 million people lost their lives during the Communist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. That total rises to over 3 million when you include those who died from starvation during that time.
Now the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, this particular Killing Field was the final resting place for those held at Tuol Sleng Prison in downtown Phnom Penh. It is also the most visited, although today, there are less than 30 people here.
As we walk through the site, Sakona gives me insight into the horror that happened here.
“All of the buildings are gone now. After the discovery, local farmers took the wood and tools for building. These signs give you an idea of what was once here.”
I ask, “Why did they detain them here if they had just come from Tuol Sleng prison?”
“There came to be so many people sent here from Tuol Sleng, that they were not able to kill them all in one day. Most were killed with an axe or hoe, or had their throats slit. You will see the skulls later, broken from the impact. You see, they wanted to save the bullets. Bullets cost money.”
“The staff collects them every couple of weeks or so. After heavy rains, they keep coming to the surface,” he says, pointing to pieces of clothing, human bone and teeth protruding from the earth. “I pick them up too.”
“This is the grave where they found the headless ones.” he continues. “Most of them were soldiers. We know this because of the clothing they were wearing. No one was safe here.”
We move on to what would prove to be the most disturbing part of Choeung Ek.
“Sometimes, instead of using the tree, the executioners would throw the baby in the air, then have it land on a bayonet. They would make the mother watch this. You can only imagine the screams.”
“The tree has grown over the years, but if you look up, you can see the spot on the tree that has changed colour. That’s where they would hit the child’s head. When this place was discovered, there were still skull fragments and brains embedded there.”
Sakona left me for a few moments to pay my respects in the Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa. It houses over 8000 of the skulls unearthed here, in addition to more clothing and bone fragments. It’s a sobering sight as I watch young and old trickle through the narrow corridors to view the remains.
In 1994, the Cambodian government passed legislation banning the Khmer Rouge, and provided amnesty to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who defected to the government between July 7, 1994 to January 7, 1995.
I ask Sakona about the amnesty law and how many people were prosecuted for the killings here. “Not many,” he says. “With the current tribunal,” he says referring to the United Nations-backed trial currently under way, “they are concentrating on the higher-ups, but most who worked here walked away free men.”
One of the four accused in the tribunal, Kaing Guek Eav aka “Duch” received a 19-year prison sentence for his direct role in ordering the deaths of 16 thousand people.
“Does it bother you,” I ask, “that these people are roaming free because of the amnesty law?”
“That is not the Buddhist way,” he says matter-of-factly. “Buddhists do not believe in retribution or revenge. We believe in justice, but not retribution.”
‘Do you get many school groups here?” I ask.
“No, not many.”
“When do they learn about the Killing Fields in Cambodian schools?”
I am floored. I have to ask him again to be sure.
The sad truth is, Cambodian children do not learn about what happened at the Killing Fields in school.
It’s not part of the curriculum. Sakona added that they might learn about it in university. In this third-world country where many of the kids work for their families from an early age, I wondered how many of them actually made it to university.
”What about from their parents?” I ask. “Do families teach them about this at home?”
“No, not usually. They don’t want to upset or scare the children.”
“So what would the parents say if the kids asked about a missing family member? For example, an aunt or uncle who was in a photo, but they have never met?”
“Simply that they passed away.”
I couldn’t fathom this for some reason. The country’s biggest atrocity. The children don’t learn about it. The adults don’t talk about it.
Maybe it’s my western way of thinking. Maybe I need to learn a lot more about the Cambodian people.
Or maybe I just have a lot more to learn about forgiveness.
What are your thoughts?