Today I experienced two extremes in the treatment of death. This morning I walked to the Royal Palce to see some of the events linked to the king’s cremation ceremony. Throngs of Cambodians lined the streets, not because they will see anything of the cremation, but because they loved their king and came to show their respect. All wearing white – the colour of mourning here – and with black badges bearing the king’s smiling face, they sat, gathered in shady retreats, eating, talking and sharing the occasion with friends and family. Some prayed and chanted at shrines. I am now watching the celebratory fireworks from the roof top bar of my hostel.
This afternoon I visited the killing fields – Choeung Ek – about half an hour out of the capitall. Walking around this peaceful and serene place it is diffiult to believe what lies beneath the ground, the vile attrocities that were committed here, and the terrifying last moments of the people who died here. As you walk around, you come across fragments of bone and scraps of clothing or blindfolds that are continuing to surface over 30 years after the last grave was dug. As the narrator on the audio tour said, it is as if the souls of those who died here keep returning to remind us of what happened.
The most horrifying thing to see was the ‘killing tree’ – babies were held by their feet and their skulls smashed against this tree to kill them. Next to the tree is a grave where the remains of 100 women and children were found. Most of the women were naked. On the killing tree were found fragments of bone, brain tissue, and hair.
There are 300 killing fields around Cambodia, the resting place of a quarter of the country’s population from that time. The people who died here were treated worse than animals – shackled in the pitch black sheds when they arrived, subjected to blarring sound systems playing revolutionary music made even less bearable and more terrifying by the deafening roar of the generators. And finally when they were to meet their fate, they were taken to a grave side, beaten, had their throats cut, and were thrown into the grave. Because some even managed to survive this grusome treatment, DDT was sprayed into the graves to finish the job and had the added benefit of masking the smell of rotting flesh.
There was no funeral for these poor souls, no fireworks, nothing to mark their death except the cleaning of the agricultural tools used to bring it about. No respect. No tears from their loved ones at their graveside. Just pain, darkness and then release.
The last two days have been difficult but important. I’ve reflected a lot about life, death, what we might all be capable of, and the extreme suffering that so many have – and continue to have – to bear. I think it’s vital for everyone to see the killing fields and their equivalents around the world.. We must know what might be within our souls, to ensure it never is.
Tomorrow I move on to Chi Phat, a community-based eco-tourism project in the Southern Cardamon Mountains. The village has around 500 families, and the project was established to provide an alternative livelihood to felling and poaching. I have opted to stay with a family, which almost certainly means no power and definitely means I’ll be taking outdoor rainwater showers. But it means I’ll learn more about the country and it’s people than I would in a guesthouse or hotel. There are lots of activities on offer, including trekking, kayaking, cycling, etc. I can’t wait to get off the tourist trail and into the heart of the country.I’m not sure I’ll have any wifi, so this may be over and out for 5 days. I’ll keep you posted…