Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Dead Souls of Cambodia

A tower of skulls casts a shadow providing momentary relief from the offensively hot rays beating down on us from the midday sun. Many of the skulls are barely bigger than my fist. One young Cambodian man told me, “we don’t think about the past, we only look to the future”. At the Killing Fields it’s hard to think of anything else. Fragments of bone jutting out from behind wild flowers act as gruesome reminders of the horrific truth that lay buried in these lush, green meadows. Palm trees shiver as a gentle breeze occasionally blows like so many dead souls whispering their terrible secrets to the hoards of perspiring tourists. Everything here is vivid green, healthy and alive and the paradox is almost unbearable
The tower of skulls in honour of the dead

Standing in the middle of this oasis is a thick-trunked tree with long, powerful branches and an unmistakeable, negative energy. The brown stains on the trunk is all that remains of the thousands of infants whose skulls were smashed against the rough bark of the Killing Tree as they were swung by their ankles by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Satan himself couldn’t have found a more evil use for one of nature’s finest creations.

A small wooden bench nestled in an orchard is the perfect place to sit and digest everything I’ve learned about Pol Pot’s regime during my tour. “A Memory from Darkness”, Him Sophy’s haunting response to the tragedy plays in my ears and fills me right to the core with unmitigated sorrow. The ground is uneven and beneath every rising mound lays thousands of innocent men, women and children who were systematically murdered as unceremoniously as a colony of ants in someone’s kitchen. 

Left exactly as it was found
I was standing on the bodies of over 17,000 innocent men, women and children who were executed for reasons as vague as wearing glasses or being related to someone who was believed to oppose the regime. From the Killing Fields, or Choeung Ex we were taken to Tuol Sleng, the High School turned high-security prison where victims were held before being transported to the Fields. The blood stained walls and barbed wire have remained untouched since the liberation by the Vietnamese in 1979 and this real life hell on earth was opened up to the public exactly as it was found. In one of the cell chambers there are even instructions written in chalk on the walls such as "il est interdit de faire du bruit" (it is forbidden to make noise). Old classrooms had had cells built in, each barely big enough to fit a human body in.

One of the rooms of cells
The entire complex is a harrowing maze of cells and torture chambers, until you arrive at the ground floor corridor of the furthest building. The Khmer Rouge, like many dictatorial psychopaths, were organised to the point of obsession meaning that every single soul who ever entered the prison was photographed and this corridor in the final building is wallpapered with these records. Infants too young to even stand up are held before the camera by phantom arms while children who are old enough to realise their predicament are frozen mid-scream. No-one in our group made it to the end of the corridor.

It is a very sobering experience but one I recommend to anyone passing through Cambodia's oppressive capital, Phnom Penh. The poverty and destruction wrought by the genocide is still omnipresent throughout the country so be prepared to tip generously everywhere despite the fact that the lonely planet says it is not customary here.

Former high school, now death centre

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