Posts Tagged 'killing fields'

Not So Past Tense

Sit at a Western cafe. Your favorite cafe. Order a fish filet salad, pour the caper dressing from a little porcelain pitcher, watch the waiter fill your water glass from a thick green bottle. Read the day’s paper.

The photo: front page, full color. Two smiling boys in black pajamas, red Krama scarves around their necks. They’re posed with bamboo bayonets, beside Cham girls sitting in folding chairs, round faces glowing beneath their head scarves. Follow the jump, thumbing inside, page 21. Headline: “Politicking Mixes With ‘Day of Anger’ Atrocity Re-enactment.”


About 2,000 monks, students, teachers and government officials flocked yesterday to the site of some of the most horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge era to reenact barbaric torture and execution scenes for the annual “Day of Anger” remembrance.

Spill dressing on the page.

It stains in little green dots, oil leaking through the white paper that isn’t newsprint, but white, like a school newsletter. Furrow your brow as you read on.

It’s campaign season. With elections coming next month, the ruling CPP party has been gearing up. Posters have appeared in storefronts throughout the city; campaign trucks have rumbled past your balcony, blasting slogans distorted by cheap speakers. Reports of bribery and repression have been popping up. Propaganda everywhere.

And now this. Day of Anger, once called “Day of Hate”—founded by the Vietnamese during their post-KR occupation of Cambodia. A time when people gather at the Killing Fields. Instead of mourning or remembering, lighting incense and raising in their foreheads, bowing—instead of that, the article says, teenagers dress up in Khmer Rouge uniforms and do historical reenactments of brutal torture: skull-smashing and rapes.

Remember, a year ago, at a different Western cafe, reading a report from Rwanda of their Genocide Memorial Holiday. It was a good piece. Remember squinting at your iPhone, zooming and scrolling, wondering why Cambodia didn’t have one of those.

You found later that it does, but it’s not as widespread as the one in Rwanda. You were here for the last one. You didn’t notice anything going on in the city.

Look up from the article, consider the difference in the very names: Forgiveness versus Anger.

Chew your salad and keep reading.

It sounds as though the reenactment was being used as propaganda. Ruling party members were on hand to remind attendees of how much the CPP has done for Cambodia, how much development has taken place since the real crimes happened—the real killings in the Killing Fields.

Remember going there. There were still scraps of clothes and bits of bones in the dirt. Imagine briefly these young men, marching in crisp clothes in yesterday’s heat, rubber sandals stepping over those fragmented remains of the victims.

Of course, there are some complaints—quotes criticizing the CPP for exploiting the Killing Fields and the Day of Anger for their own benefit. And more than even that, a threat:

Yim Sovann, SRP spokesman, said mixing political messages at a remembrance to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime was intentional.

“They know the people are afraid of war so they want to show this [Khmer Rouge atrocities] again to remind people and spread [the idea] around the country that if they vote of other parties there will be a war,” Mr. Sovann said.

Look up again. Think of the conversation you had with S last week, on the terrace of a wine bar overlooking the Tonle Sap river. “It’s always there,” S had said. “They’re always threatening genocide, in this veiled way.” S’s Khmerican, cleaved in that space between expats and locals, forever the hyphen. “And with all the same people still in power, it’s easy to understand why people are scared.”

S had looked up from her mojito and stared out, at the street below you.

Look out at the street before you now—a coconut cart, a moto driver picking his teeth in his side mirror. Pavement giving way to rubble.

You’ve been thinking this for awhile: that it’s not all so past tense. You came here to write about trauma, as though it were something that had stopped happening. As though it were just the psychological ricochets to deal with. As if it weren’t all still here. As if there weren’t still bones and scraps of clothing in the dirt.

How do you tease it apart? How do you write about one part with getting into it all? Is there even a “one part”? And how do you write about if you only ever hear about this shit the day after it happens, when you’re having your foofy lunch at your favorite foofy cafe?

You don’t. Or I don’t. I can’t.

The salad dressing stains spread across the page, turning the paper a soggy green transparent. The newsprint bleeds a bit.

You keep chewing and chewing.

Fragmentary Thoughts at the Killing Fields

Late afternoon sun through the trees, dusty lot and birds singing, the stillness of a temple. I slide off my shoes and the tiles are hot on my feet as I walk slowly around the pagoda, a tower of skulls.

And it isn’t the skulls that get me—sorted by age and gender, piles that are missing jaws and teeth, holes where the smashing happened, the jagged line were the cranium stitched itself together—lines that were hidden, kept under hair and skin, kept a secret from them, themselves for as long as they lived—and laid bare here now, with nothing to disguise it anymore: This is how you were sewn together, and this is where the wound occurred, and this is what is left.

But the skulls aren’t what gets me, because the skulls don’t seem real. It’s the piles of clothes on the bottom shelf. Shirts and shorts, dusty and tattered and vacant now, a limp pile—this is what is left.

We walk through the field, where the earth dips down into ditches (it’s not rain or erosion that made these), trees that stand stoicly, silently by. We come to stand beside an exhumed grave (but “grave” is too good a word—there’s no word for what this was). A sign says that teeth and bits of bones and scraps of clothes continue to come up, out of the earth, after it rains or floods.

Sometimes the earth write the metaphors for you, I think. Sometimes the ground itself is a poem—this place a poem you couldn’t possibly ever write, no one could write, just walk through—the stillness; the birds; the smell of incense and smoke; someone burning off wild grasses somewhere, behind the fence; schoolkids singing somewhere in the wind. Two monks walking, orange robes, reading the signs with impassive faces, round faces, young young faces.

There’s scraps of clothes everywhere. “Are these…?” we begin to ask each other, but don’t finish the question. (There is no question for what this was.) Surely someone would have gathered these scraps, dusted them off, “deordorized” them as the sign said, added them to the pile of All That Is Left.

But we keep walking and I realize there’s too many, too much—scraps of clothes existing like ghosts, or souls that haven’t quite made it up out of the earth, out of what there aren’t words for, poems for—this.

The trees all saw this, I think. These same trees, noble and twisted and standing here still. Some were forced to take part, and I imagine something in them weeping, their trunks dulled and bloodied. These same trees, bearing witness, the same way they bear witness now—silent, petrified in their places, the way parts of our brains are, the way parts of our brains bear witness (secret stitching, secret from ourselves)—roots tangling and rising out of the earth, with the teeth and bones and scraps of clothing and all the things there aren’t metaphors for: a dusty field in the afternoon sun.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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