How many times can you go to the Cambodian killing fields and hear the story of the Khmer Rouge genocide? Never enough.
How many times can you remember what happened here, where bone fragments and teeth still surface after a heavy rain, like fragments of teacups and old marbles in my vegetable garden? Were I to till this soil, would I disturb a child at rest, a mother who grieves no more, a tortured man whose only mistake was to wear his glasses as he fled Phnom Penh?
Could I grow heirloom tomatoes in this hallowed ground? And if I did, would the fruit be bitter or sweet?
A superfluous sign says, “Be Quiet.” Could you be anything but silent as you walk these paths amongst the pits where hundreds of skeletons lay, as you pass the Buddhist bracelets on a tree where children’s heads were smashed? It hurts to be here—but nothing like the hurt that was imposed in the killing fields and, earlier, at Tuol Sleng.
Yet as I’ve observed before, this is also a place of great peace: sunshine and water, earth and sky, birds singing in the trees. (Do they bend their songs to blues as souls fly by.
This is my fourth time at the killing fields. It’s required by Tabitha Foundation of all who would come to Cambodia to build houses. Nobody minds, even if they’ve been many times before. For me, it was a chance to confront something I’ve not been able to deal with during earlier visits—going inside the stupa where thousands of skulls are stacked 17 levels high. Each has been carefully examined and catalogued by forensic specialists, and many have actually been identified through DNA and other evidence.
I’ve always avoided this place, merely taking photos from outside. This time felt different to me; for some reason I was ready to wrestle with the evil and embrace the memories that live inside the stupa. I knew I would cry, and I did, and it was OK. I found myself praying (not easy for a nontheist) in the midst of all these spirits, wishing them peace.
In the van on the way back to Phnom Penh, we talked about how many times since the Khmer Rouge atrocities that the world—and our own United States—had failed to recognize and confront genocide. United to End Genocide reports that between 1.7 and 2 million people died during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign, mostly from starvation as a result of ideological decisions made by the regime.
Estimates heard here in Cambodia go as high as 3 million—in either case around a quarter of the country’s population at the time. Were this sort of upheaval to befall the U.S., the death toll would exceed 75 million. Would the world come to our rescue?
I prayed, I cried, I lit some incense; I laid flowers at the stupa door. It’s not enough, but perhaps it’s a start—at least for me. And when I come back to Cambodia, as I surely will, I’ll return to the killing fields to grow this seed of peace and to take another step toward heirloom tomatoes and universal grace.