This piece appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Meanjin. The author retains copyright.
The morning heatwave, having grown rampant on the city skyline, overspills into the streets of Phnom Penh. Our tuk-tuk driver drags a veil of dust through the heavy amber spears of sunlight. He wears a wholesome white cotton shirt and brown fisherman’s trousers. The urban musk of petrol, fruit and rubbish billows the fine fabric into a Michelin Man burlesque. He pilots with patient aggression around meteoric potholes and slaloming squads of mopeds. Rusting Ford trucks flaking green and white paint heave across tight corners, chickens screeching and pallets shifting in the back.
The stain left by the Khmer Rouge draws thousands of genocide tourists to Cambodia every year. Young couples exploring one another; patrician types inspecting former colonies; dirt bike riders seeking unblemished jungle trails; the singlet and hiking boots set aching for non-Western civilisation. In the early morning this temporary diaspora converges at Choeung Ek, the killing field where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered almost 9000 political prisoners.
Our driver circles a roundabout, kills the bike without warning and coasts along the shoulder into a laneway. A young Cambodian boy, perhaps five or six, steps from blue-grey gloom. He takes the driver’s money in exchange for a large plastic Coca-Cola bottle filled with incandescent liquid. The driver rips his bike seat up and upends a brief rainbow into the petrol tank. Gold dust haloes the Buddhist priests and beggars wandering the alleys branching in the background over the boy’s shoulder. They move with quiet urgency about their business. Abominable heat is building. Chickens have begun to wilt in their cages. We unfurl back into traffic, a minnow returning to the shoal.
Pol Pot and his cadres entered Phnom Penh four decades ago, after five years of civil war. They emptied the capital city, and then every Cambodian town and city. In a matter of weeks the revolutionaries dispossessed an entire populace into serfdom. Each family was atomised and scattered. From 1975 until 1979 the itinerant slave nation was shunted at rifle point around countryside plantations. The population was returned to the earth figuratively and literally: as many as 3 million died, from an estimated pre-genocide population of 8 million. Religious structures were degraded and destroyed. Ethnic minorities were slaughtered. Survivors of the rolling, multifaceted purges succumbed to famine and malaria.
The tuk-tuk stops a second time at one of the inestimable number of blankets lining the roadside, strewn with motorbike tools and knickknacks. The driver buys us protective facemasks for the dust. He pays for them with his own wad of notes withdrawn from a bag nestled on the underside of his stomach. He passes them to us without a word. Twenty minutes later we escape the outward march of newly grouted, gated communities and arrive at the entrance to an old semi-rural orchard.
The shady trees conjure soft breezes in leafy sotto voce. The dead lie beneath shallow undulations beside worn wooden boardwalks. Under my sandals, under the tourist infrastructure, under a faint dusting of dignifying soil, lie skeletons, one over the other, down and down. Others are out there, discovered and undiscovered, on farmland, beside roads, below patios. Choeung Ek is one of more than 23,000 documented mass graves dotting the Cambodian map.
A visitor route is meticulously set out within guiding barriers. I trace it slowly, listening to an audio tour, obeying small numbered signs in the topsoil. A soft voice re-creates each scene. Two hundred are in this grave beside the wreckage of a shed. They didn’t use firing squads. Bullets were precious. The corpses were stacked up with intimate violence, always under cover of darkness. Axe handles and hoe blades and strangulation were the normal methods. Prisoners opened new graves by day and filled them by moonlight. The generators pounded all night as the cadres worked. Revolutionary music keened over loudspeakers.
When it rains, bones and clothes leech up from the ground. Scraps and rags lie innocently in the dust, stabbed back into reality by root-system regurgitation. Staff and volunteers photograph the fragments and sort them by type. Returned pieces join their like inside a pyramidal Buddhist stupa by the gates. Five thousand skulls, pressed up against glass panels, greet and farewell visitors. We retrace our steps under their gaze and search out our driver in the parking lot scrum. The bike splutters and kicks. The tuk-tuk driver offered us a two-for-one deal. Choeung Ek followed by Tuol Sleng, the high school that the Khmer Rouge transfigured into a torture camp.
We manoeuvre back to the capital in silence, at velocity, masks suffocating in the clay-kiln wind. The barbed-wire compound of Tuol Sleng is 1.5 kilometres west of the spine of the capital, the Mekong River, and the apparatus of government. Tenements and restaurants abut the school’s perimeter fence. Inside stand three rectangular buildings, three storeys apiece, unvarnished grey and umber, juxtaposed around a wide sandy courtyard. The colonnade on the second and third floor of each school building is netted with barbed wire. The wire stopped prisoners throwing themselves over the edge.
Each former classroom holds a selection of artefacts, starkly alone in the expanse of the floor. Rusted beds and manacles, extracts from the jailor’s records. Confessions and dispatch papers for those sent to Choeung Ek. Some rooms are mirrored in grainy black and white photos of themselves, taken by Vietnamese soldiers when they liberated the compound. Rough handmade walls of clay bricks subdivide the ground floor of the second building. The divisions form a dim warren of chambers, some an arm’s length wide. Fingernail marks scar the clay. In the third building, dusty billboards chronicle the work of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which has adjudged perpetrators of the genocide since 1997. Shrivelled grandfathers feature in the witness box alongside neat lists of their crimes.
The next day I find Pol Pot’s Little Red Book of revolutionary edicts in a bookstore. The title is somewhat of a misnomer. The dictator Pol Pot made few public appearances. The communal sayings in the Little Red Book were mostly uttered by foot soldiers. They said to one another, ‘arrest someone by mistake; never release him by mistake’. They agreed that for internees too exhausted to work ‘Hunger is the most effective disease’. To their victims, face-to-face: ‘If you wish to live exactly as you please, the Angkar will put aside a small piece of land for you.’ ‘It is no gain to keep you; it is no loss to destroy you.’
The regime called itself the Angkar, ‘the organisation’. By a coincidence of language it sounds close to Angkor, megacity of the grandiloquent Khmer Empire that ruled most of Indochina from the ninth to the fifteenth century. That ancient sprawl in Cambodia’s north was a template, an aspiration, for the Angkar. One impetus was perceived former glory, the frescoes of dead god-kings. Others were Maoist thought and the metastasis of obliterating B52 bomb runs conducted by US fighter planes across the Vietnamese border. But tracts in the Little Red Book also declaim into the void beyond monuments, dogma and carnage, into uneasy subjectivity and passing recognition. The Angkar’s slogans contain sentiments we have all felt, if only in existential antipathy and, certainly, ephemerality as we consistently banished them.
In this era one can believe that genocide is utterly alien. And this is nowhere easier than amid old buildings and quiet fields that, in careworn black and white and sepia, render the acts they signify distant. A seductive solution suggests itself: the past is a foreign country. Empathy builds upon this, seeking to right an ancient, unrepeatable wrong. Explain the evil and remember the fallen. Avoid taking pictures; donate money; pause in reflection before the stupa, in revulsion before the rusted wire. Then return to the present era at the exit and drive off towards the future.
Intuition, in all its blueprints for decency and hope, runs counter to stubborn facts. The exacting definition of genocide as developed during the Nuremberg trials provides a rhetorical protection against all but the worst atrocities. Under this definition the United Nations recognises only five instances of genocide in human history: those perpetrated against Turkish Armenians, European Jews, Rwandan Tutsis, Yugoslav Muslims and Cambodian pluralities. In contrast Genocide Watch, the coordinating organisation of the International Alliance to End Genocide, estimates that some 164 episodes of genocide, ‘politicide’ (the deliberate destruction of a political group) and mass killing were perpetrated between 1945 and 2008. This more encompassing figure includes all forms of extermination while still excluding interstate war.
Despite the best of intentions, the concept of genocide sanitises routine violence against minorities. The definition dovetails with the comforts of history and the distance of tourism to obfuscate the truth that mass killing, war and authoritarianism never left us. And once committed they never leave us, acknowledged or not. At Choeung Ek, amid scorched grass dappled with patches of shade, each cooling lagoon bursting with sweating genocide tourists, the bones of nameless victims are thrusting up to join the present day. Elsewhere—from the illimitable perspective of millennia, most everywhere—thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of killing fields yield without fanfare.
Featured image: Tuol Sleng, author’s photograph.