Every now and then a particular place can take your breath away. Most often, this happens in response to the scenic beauty gifted by nature or created by great artists both ancient and new. But there exist in this world places that will forever be associated with true horror. The kind of horror that pulls something out of you.
For most people, myself included, the simple mention of Cambodia evokes thoughts of the holocaust that was carried out by the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s. Pol Pot’s vicious regime exterminated well over 1 million souls across Cambodia’s prisons, forced labor camps and other “killing fields.” The most notorious site is now a memorial to the countless spirits who suffered not only their own brutal deaths, but whose last days were also defined by the terror of seeing others tormented, tortured, raped and butchered before their very eyes.
Cheoung Ek sits on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and covers several acres. It is not an expansive space, making it all the more startling to learn the magnitude of the tragedy that occured there. But the area was not used as a concentration camp for long-term occupants. It had a single use. It is where prisoners from the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh were carried in dozens by trucks, told they were being transported to their new “homes”, and — upon arrival — swiftly executed in numbers so large that the Khmer Rouge progressively found new ways to become more efficient killers to keep pace with the influx of new arrivals. The tortured remains were cast into mass graves and covered over just enough to conceal to the next truckload of victims their assured fate.
(Photos: Phnom Penh’s S-21 Prison)
The memorial is still very much an excavation site. Along walking paths it is common to look down and see tatters of clothing rising up through the earth, along with bones and even teeth. These are not roped off areas. This is under your feet as you walk the site. With each rain, new remains and artifacts are revealed, and the work of the memorial staff goes on as pieces are collected and categorized and then put away or incorporated into another display. It is this utter rawness of the site that makes it so profound and heart wrenching. Each step becomes very personal, and extremely careful for fear of disturbing or dishonoring the memory of someone’s child, brother, wife, sister, husband, or even baby.
(Photos: Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center)
Perhaps most breath-taking is what Phnom Penh is today. It is so profound to see a country that has very little distance from such a tragic chapter in its history awash in smiles and laughter and dance — almost to the brink of celebration. The city exudes great joy and compassion. It is beautiful by any standard, and the Cambodian people are extremely warm and gracious.
It’s not as though there were grand attempts at retribution or that justice was ever fully served. There is much blood on many hands beyond the borders of Cambodia. A few were convicted by a U.N. warcrimes tribunal that continues its work today, despite resignations by judges who have accused some Cambodian officials from interfering with investigations. And while this carries on, Cambodia doesn’t appear to be terribly interested in revisiting the wounds of the past as it strives to simply honor every day as it is delivered. That is dignity.
For most, the beloved memories of those lost will always preside over those who took them…
Quieted among darkened stories
embossed upon heartbroken land
As a pasture’s Morning Glories,
spirits consecrated stand