It’s been a long day, but finally I start to descend into Phenom Penh airport. I stare out the window and I’m a little taken aback by the lack of light. I took off from Bangkok a little under an hour ago, and there, on the King’s Birthday, the skies were lit up with fireworks as far as you could see.
I adjust the glasses on my nose’s bridge – something that I’ve picked up as a slight mental tick. Even though I have only been wearing glasses for about two years, I now find myself trying to push up phantom spectacles whenever I try and concentrate.
Suddenly, a rush of panic washes across me – I have remembered the stories that I first heard as an early primary school student – those of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge – stories of a time when simply wearing glasses would see you end up in a shallow, boggy grave. I know that this dark chapter of Cambodia’s history has long since been closed, however part of me can’t help but worry that I’ll be led off into a back room at customs and summarily executed.
The stories of the Killing Fields only started hitting the western media when I was about 5. As the Cold War came to a close, we finally started listening to reason and stopped treating the Khmer Rouge as the leading party of Cambodia. Stories of Pol Pot’s “Year 0,” re-education camps and the failure of communism flew out of the country, and then as the memorial ossuary was constructed, the image of thousands of skulls lined up started making the genocide a very visible reality.
As a small atheist child, I was a little petrified. I was also an avid Sci-fi fan, and at the time I was reading books of the ilk of The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffery. I tried my hardest to conjure up armies of soldiers every night to surround my house and protect my family.
Thankfully, the Khmer Rouge never found their way to my little country town in Australia a decade after they were ousted from Phenom Penh, and thus I am here to regale you with the crazy fantasies of a 6-year-old.
But the killing fields are still very real. It is a sombre place, something I can liken to Hiroshima or Hitler’s Bunker in Berlin. However, there is no escaping the reality of what happened at Choeung Ek – nine thousand empty eye sockets burn the reality into your brain.
The bog-like mass graves have only been excavated of large bones – meaning that there are still bones underfoot. I am used to bushwalking in Sydney, where you often see desiccated roots or lumber poking out from the ground, so it took me a triple-take to realise that this familiar site was actually bone fragments, not ancient roots systems.
However, i wasn’t aware of the level of torture imposed upon those victims. Bullets were expensive in communist Cambodia, so the executed were dispatched with farm tools, bamboo, and some even had their throats cut with palm fronds. Some weren’t even dead when they were thrown into the mass graves – they were covered in chemicals like DDT to help mask the smell, and this was their final demise.
Visiting sites like these is important. It puts your shitty life problems into perspective, and it gives you a much needed kick in the arse to think deeply about the world that we live in. I was just a little disappointed to see that the only people that bothered to visit were white westerners…
It is easy to pay these instances off as people in the grips of mayhem, and that this will never happen to us, but as a parting blow, I’d like to remind you of the Zimbardo experiment, wherein Stamford university students simulated a prison within test conditions. Within no time at all the kinds of anti-social behaviour that you would link to the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge started to surface. We are not so different from those that wreak genocide on other people. It will only be through reminding ourselves of this kind of lunacy that we may help prevent it again.