Tuesday, January 20, 2015

So, we should all learn from this.

Today is one of the most emotionally draining days of my life. It is 11:30 am. I am sitting on a bench at the Cambodian Killing Fields with a dear friend, each of us processing these human atrocities in our own way. As we listened to the stories of several survivors, I watched ants move millimeter by millimeter with their dinner humped on their backs.

Story 1: Loss of an Infant. A woman was too malnourished to nurse her child; she worked all day in the rice fields as her son slowly starved. Revolutionary Slogan to help ease her pain--Better an innocent lost than a future enemy spared.

The ants find the carcass of two bugs: one large, one small. They sent messengers back to the nest to get more help to move the bodies.

Story 2: Witness to a Killing. The Khmer Rouge soldiers, beat, starved, and tortured a man. He was shackled outside of the prison when a guard questioned a woman in the street about two bananas. The man watched as the woman pleaded, but the guard sliced her neck with a hatchet then decapitated her with a hoe. The woman died in silence. The man lived in screams.
The bamboo fence surrounding a mass grave.

The ants come together in groups. Three push their heads under the large bug to raise it up enough for the others to wedge their bodies between it and the ground. Their journey begins.

Story 3: Rape Leads to Shame. Twelve Khmer Rouge soldiers had beaten a woman unconscious, raped her, and left her to die. She woke up naked and filled with shame, guilt, and pain that assaulted her very core of being.

The ants meet a rock that is about an three centimeters tall and four centimeters wide. They run into it several times. Realising that it cannot be moved by force, the ants shifted tactics. A row of ants held the bug above their bodies. Four ants wedged themselves under the first row. Rows wedged under rows elevating the bug to the top of rock where there were four ants waiting to take the burden from their comrades. They worked together to solve a problem that seemed, to me, insurmountable.

Piece of clothing on the ground. The recent rain uncovered it.
Story 3: The Story of a Man. A boy woke up in his home in Phnom Penh. A knock on the door sounded through the halls. The Khmer Rouge soldiers told him he must leave this place and go home. He was confused; Phnom Penh was his home. He knew no other. He went to his grandmother's home hoping to escape the revolution. After some time, his mother and sister arrived. He found out that they had been turned away at the Vietnamese border; they would have left the country without him. One day his cousin came to the town and loudly disagreed with the revolution. The Khmer Rouge soldiers shot him without a second glance. Then, the boy was jailed for his intelligence and birth right, but the sacrifice of another prisoner released him. An old man pleaded with the guards to let the boy go. The guards took the man's life in exchange for the boy. "I don't even know his name," the boy said of the man to whom he owed his life. The boy escaped to Texas and studied with revenge in his heart. He returned to Cambodia with only one thought: to make his mother proud by forcing the Khmer Rouge to suffer as he suffered. His mother didn't want that. So, he has turned his work into shedding light onto this genocide about which so many of us are unaware. He works to prevent this from happening again. He searches for peace within his past, within himself.

The ants run across a leaf that catches in the wing of the large bug. It adds to the mass, but they ask for help and more ants come to raise the leaf to make it a part of their load. They maneuver around other pebbles and leaves. The extra leaf falls away and those helpers are incorporated back into the bug-lifting rotation. They reach their ant hill. Some ants widen the tunnels to accommodate the large bug. And, down they go, finally at home.

Barbed wire surrounding the compound.
These stories are some of immeasurable loss: loss of self, loss of others, loss of reason. Yet, the ants living in the place of destruction find a way to live, grow, and nurture themselves. They met challenges and worked as a unit to communicate, problem solve, and overcome them. The Cambodian people use this place of destruction as a way to educate people about the true horrors of war, about things that happened less than fifty years ago...

about what we need to do to prevent it from happening again.

*I listened to these stories with rice paddies behind me, a pond in front of me, and a friend beside me. We continued our audio tour through signs of clothing found on decomposed bodies, and mass graves of skeletons without skulls.

Number 15 Audio Guide Tour: The Killing Tree
As I started this part of the audio guide, Katniss' song from the Mockingjay movie circled through my head. I knew that this was the grave of women and children. The previous track warned us the next one would be tough. I steeled myself. I pushed play.

The Killing Tree with remembrance bracelets
The guide discussed the treatment of women first. They stripped them, had them kneel blindfolded and hands bound, then swung with a hoe or hammer or axel severing their spinal chords, then slit their throats with a palm tree knife or a sugar cane frond and pushed them into the grave. Revolutionary music blared from speakers to cover the sounds of their screams.

The Killing Tree, however, was not used for women. In fact, I don't think anyone but children died here. The Khmer soldiers, humans with a conscious, grabbed children--infants--by the feet, bashed their heads against the tree and flung them into the grave. They watered its roots with blood.

I wrapped my arms around myself, squeezing my eyes, willing this indescribable sense of loss escaping my eyes to go away. But, it didn't. So, instead I watered its roots with salt water.

My friend wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and we existed in a time that was neither now nor then, but instead a half-memory that should not belong to anyone.

We finished the tour walking slowly looking at the ground from which bones grow like palm trees. The birds sang a to each other reminding us that there is still good in this place, but from it we must learn.

*Written in my hostel at1630.


  1. very poignant and with a sense of caring for the victims and caring for the future that the lesson is learned and process not be repeated. I sense your pain and your love of humanity Katie....hugs from afar....

  2. Not sure if my last comment published... Thank you for this, sweet girl. When you come home, I'd like to hear more about your experience.