Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana
Please forgive my preamble, but I feel as though this next blog post should come with some form of forewarning. Yesterday Jessie, Chris LP and I went to the Cheoung Ek Genocidal Centre. The memorial site of one of the killing fields presented the facts about the Khmer Rouge regime in such a brutally honest way. There was no denying the absolute horrors that occurred or the sorrow the country feels over the atrocities committed.
I feel completely inadequate in the face of articulating what I saw, how I felt, and especially somehow trying to paint a picture of the genocide. However, I was touched by the courage and honesty with which the facts and stories were told. Through this it seems the people of Cambodia are able to acknowledge such a heartbreaking past, but also realise they are no longer at this place, and therefore move forward into a place of peace.
The Cheoung Ek Genocidal Centre is a guided audio tour built at the location of one of the many killing fields that existed during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975-1979. It is actually impossible to know how many people were killed during this time. However, I have heard anywhere from 1.7 million to 3 million people killed.
Driving around a foreign country, there are always many differences. One of the heartbreaking differences about Cambodia is that the combination of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and a low life expectancy due to poverty means that it is actually fairly uncommon to see older people. 70% of the population is under the age of 30, which is astounding compared to Australia. When you meet anyone older, you are stuck with the realisation that they really have lived through something horrendous. Already I have heard such remarkable stories of people surviving the genocide and returning to Cambodia in order to bring life back into this country.
The Cheoung Ek Genocidal Centre was one of the many killing fields in Cambodia. Prisoners were trucked into the field specifically for the purposed of execution. Towards the end of the Khmer Rouge reign 300 people a day were being trucked into the Cheoung Ek to be killed. Heartbreaking, they have found almost 9,000 bodies at Cheoung Ek, with half the mass graves at the site still unexcavated.
There are so many heartbreaking stories from Cheoung Ek. Stories I do not feel I can give justice or respect to by sharing on a blog. However, what touched me deeply about the Cheoung Ek Cenocide Centre was the deep sorrow, respect and love that the victims of Cheoung Ek are being shown now. I cannot express the absolute horror with which the victims of Cheoung Ek were treated. The Khmer Rouge soldiers did not think their life worth the cost of a bullet. However, today, these bones belonging to names unknown are given the love they were so cruelly denied.
During our walk through the killing field we came to a mass grave beside a tree. The audio tour explained that in this grave had been found the bodies of more than 100 women, with their babies beside them. Soldiers would hit babies against the tree and throw them into the grave, all while their mother’s watched. I sat beside this tree and cried. For the pain and wrong and injustice done then – there are no words.
However, yesterday, as I wept beside the tree, nothing could be seen of it’s cruel past. It has been bedecked with colourful bracelets. Hundreds and hundreds of brightly woven bands stick to the tree as a symbol of love, sorrow and respect.
The killing field of Cheoung Ek filled me with absolute sadness. However, the memorial at the Cheoung Ek Cenocide Centre was set with an attitude of accepting the past with sorrow and respect while looking towards the future with hope. It may be impossible to understand, but I feel visiting Cheoung Ek has added a colour of truth, history, perseverance and hope to my picture of the Khmer people.
I have not neglected my blog posts because I have nothing to write, but rather because life in Cambodia has been so full I have not found time to write. Already I have the stories for several more posts lined up in my head. Many stories involved the beautiful, courageous lives of those I have encountered in this country. I envision this post as being the prologue to the next post I shall write; a piece of sadness, history and truth in order to bring true colour to the story.