Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

The Gates of Choeung Ek**

 Our last sightseeing stop with our friends in Phnom Penh was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, informally known as the Killing Fields. This trip was difficult, not physically, but emotionally. I was ambivalent about bringing Alexa, and I considered staying at home with her because I wasn’t certain what she would see there. However, numerous online reviews and a friend who had been there personally with small children reassured me: the site would not be visually disturbing to a child young enough not to recognize human bones, and as long as we prevented Alexa from running around and playing, her presence would not disrupt others’ experience there or be viewed as disrespectful. Jeff and I agreed that we would take Alexa and hope she slept through the experience. If she didn’t sleep, she would be kept far enough away from the two locations displaying human remains that even an older child would not recognize what was being displayed. All information was imparted via headphones on the self-paced tour, so she would not hear anything that could be disturbing to her, either.

And there was plenty to hear that was very disturbing. On this blog, I will share some of that information, and a picture or two that contain human remains. If you do not wish to be exposed to that information or those images, please don’t read any more of this post. And if you happen to be under the age of 15, please don't read it unless your parent has read it and has told you that it's okay.

The Memorial Stupak**

We arrived at Choeung Ek early in the afternoon. I was struck immediately by the somber, quiet atmosphere that permeated the location. Signs admonished people not to speak loudly, and everyone complied. Most who spoke at all did so barely above a whisper. Everyone wore headphones and listened quietly as the narrator explained in their own language what happened in this peaceful—beautiful, even—setting.

The narrator told how the victims arrived from Tuol Sleng prison, how they had been tortured already and were brought to Choeung Ek specifically to die. Music was played over loudspeakers so that nearby citizens would not hear the screams; chemicals were used to mask the smell. Meticulous records were kept to ensure that no prisoners had escaped en route. Some victims were forced to sign the paperwork themselves, in effect signing their own death warrants. Entire families were killed, including the youngest infants, so that no one would grow up to seek revenge. Bullets were expensive, so they were not used at Choeung Ek, against such weakened and “easy” targets. Instead, machetes were used; sharp ridges from the branches of a local tree were used as knives; hoes and other innocuous tools were used as bludgeons.

The Killing Tree**

The most difficult part of the tour for me was a tree. This tree was located next to a mass grave in which the bodies of women and children had been found. When the site was discovered, the tree was stained red, and no one understood why until the bodies were examined. Apparently a favorite way to kill infants was to hold them by their legs and bash their heads into the trunk of this tree, now known as the Killing Tree. I had heard this information before, but standing there, seeing the tree in front of me and the mass grave beside it; knowing that some of the victims had stood where I stood; that mothers had held their babies right there where I was holding Alexa, waiting for their babies to be taken from them; that women right there had been forced to watch as their babies were murdered … the grief gave way to rage, and I started thinking of what I would do if someone ever tried to harm Alexa—and then it struck me. Those mothers, had they and their infants been alive on this day, would have felt the same as I felt. And had I been there, in their positions, with Alexa, on one of those horror-filled days, I would have felt the same as they did: desperate, hopeless, and unable to do anything to stop what was about to happen. Had I been born a generation ago, in a country across the world from my own, it could have been my baby who was murdered before my eyes, right before I was murdered, too. And had I been born in my own time but in a different location, I could have been the baby whose skull was shattered against that tree. My own housekeeper was a toddler and preschooler during those years—had someone acted on a grudge against her family, had her parents not remained under the radar during those years, it could have been her. This is not ancient history. This is yesterday.

Mass grave in the distance

I hugged Alexa closer to me and turned away from that terrible tree. The tears were welling up in my eyes as I thought about being helpless to save her. Luckily, the moment was interrupted by another tourist who, as so many Asians seem to do, took an undue interest in Alexa. (I’m not being racist here; in all of the sites we visited, the only tourists who felt free to take pictures of my daughter, approach her without invitation, speak to her while ignoring me, and even try to take her from me without ever acknowledging my existence, the only tourists who did these things were Asian. Apparently it’s a cultural thing, viewed as perfectly acceptable to them, and only we westerners are so individualistic as to take offense or view it as threatening when strangers approach our children.) This particular woman was concerned because Alexa’s face was red*. Although I could not understand her words, her gestures and tone of voice clearly indicated her disapproval, and this disapproval combined with her invasion of my personal space—something else that seems to be characteristic of many Asian tourists but not of the Cambodians with whom I’ve interacted—felt threatening to me, although I’m certain she didn’t mean it that way. But I was not in the mood for it at that moment. I hugged Alexa protectively against my chest and glared at the woman, extending the glare to another woman who stopped beside her and joined in. Soon, three or four women surrounded me on three sides, all too close for my comfort. I glared balefully at each of them in turn and turned away. They got the hint and left me alone, although they continued watching and following from a distance, pointing at Alexa and making concerned noises.

Skulls in the Memorial Stupak**

Later, as I sat on a bench with Alexa, waiting for Jeff to finish inside the memorial stupak (which displayed hundreds of bones, so there was no way I was taking Alexa in), the women walked by and smiled and waved at Alexa. This time I felt much more relaxed, and Alexa encouraged them by smiling and playing peek-a-boo around my arm. They also did not approach me, did not make unhappy-sounding noises in my direction, and did not gesture toward Alexa’s still-pink face. Therefore I did not retreat from them.

Memorial Stupak**

Instead, my friend came up and said to Alexa, “How is it that you can make people smile even here?” I hugged her close again, realizing the truth: Alexa’s presence made the horror of the place more real to me, but for everyone else who saw her, she was a ray of light in the darkness. Her beautiful innocence provides hope that tomorrow will not hold the horrors of yesterday.

*Alexa was not sunburned. I don’t recall if she was wearing a hat at the time, but I know she was in the shade, and whenever she’d been in the sun that day, she wore a hat. She, like her mother, gets very red in the face when she gets hot. We’d been outside in the heat most of the day and both of us were bright pink for most of the day and for quite a while after we came indoors.

**All but one of the pictures in this post were taken by a friend. I took a few pictures at Choeung Ek, but not many. These are much better and contain some images that I didn’t think to capture, couldn’t bring myself to memorialize in that moment, or didn’t even see, as we were keeping Alexa away from those sights. The pictures are shown here with permission.


  1. I had many of the same feelings that you describe when I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. It was a very difficult place for my husband and I to go to (and we aren't even Jewish), but I'm glad that it's a place I have visited so I can better understand that time in history and so that I can be even more proud of what my ancestors and our country fought to end.

  2. So hard to go to the killing field. I went there straight from Tuol Sleng and it was awful. Powerful to know I was a child when it happened.

    Noelle's house helper was concerned that Cedar was flushed. She was so concerned always that the babies were too hot. They needed baths to cool down. She wouldn't rest until I did something about the matter. :)

  3. I haven't visited Tuol Sleng yet. I want to visit, but I'm not at all looking forward to it. And I don't intend to take Alexa. Everything about Pol Pot's reign is so disturbing, but in many ways, the worst part is knowing that it was in my own lifetime. That knowledge forces the realization that evil is not just a thing of the distant past, but of the present, and that these tragedies can happen anywhere, anytime, and good people must be vigilant always to stop them.

    There are lots of people here who are very concerned about Alexa :) My housekeeper usually sees her inside most of the time, but every time I took her out at first, she asked if I was taking a hat. Even after I explained that we'd be shaded in the tuk tuk and then indoors, she wanted me to take a hat for Alexa. The guards at my house were the same, until they realized that I wouldn't go back in to get a hat just because they thought she needed one. It was similar in Egypt, although the Cambodians aren't as pushy about it for the most part. I appreciate the concern ... most days :)


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