Cambodian Shadows

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—At the entrance of Choeung Ek, the most visited of the “killing fields” here, several shiny-eyed children greet tourists and quickly engage them in a counting game in both Khmer (the Cambodian language) and English. They laugh, ask the strangers their names, where they're from. They skip around and say, in unison, "1-2-3-smile!"

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—At the entrance of Choeung Ek, the most visited of the “killing fields” here, several shiny-eyed children greet tourists and quickly engage them in a counting game in both Khmer (the Cambodian language) and English. They laugh, ask the strangers their names, where they're from. They skip around and say, in unison, "1-2-3-smile!"

Choeung Ek is both a devastating slap of reality and a place where Coca-Cola is sold from kiosks, where children smile for a buck, and guides offer their recollections for a negotiable rate.

A hired guide says that the Khmer Rouge killed his parents and recalls how, as a boy, he watched the first unearthing of these mass graves. He runs his fingers across the toothy edge of the bark on a nearby palm tree and casually explains how it was used to slit throats.

Across the Choeung Ek killing fields are 86 smooth depressions—craters—where some, but not all, of the mass graves have been uncovered. Dozens more can be found in a section where rice now grows. A marker at Grave No. 7 indicates that 166 victims were found buried without heads. They were traitors, the guide says, so their deaths were extra brutal. Grave No. 5 held the naked bodies of more than 100 women and children.

Even more disturbing are tufts of clothing and bones that protrude from the ground. They show how justice is still buried, yet so close to the surface.

Wherever they dug at Choeung Ek, shovels hit corpses—bodies stacked in some premeditated order of slaughter to ensure maximum capacity. Bones lie sorted near the depressions: femurs here, tibias there. On one tree stump sits four teeth. Several yards away is a Chankiri tree, which soldiers slung children against to kill them. Some soldiers laughed as they did it, the guide says. Not laughing could indicate sympathy, making them targets, too.

Centered in the Choeung Ek field is a pagoda-style monument holding nearly 9,000 skulls, most with visible fractures and bullet holes, stacked on shelves more than two stories high. The bottom shelf holds piles of weathered clothing the victims wore. If unbloodied, the shirts and pants were stripped from the cooling corpses by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Some Cambodians feared bad karma because of the unsettled spirits lingering in these fields. The dead had received no proper burial, no last rites. In 1993, after the monument was built, Buddhist monks prayed for the spirits here, to calm the living and put minds at ease.

Understanding the brutality of this regime is a concept as foreign as the land itself. How, for instance, does a mind absorb nearly 2 million deaths? How does an outsider carry on a normal conversation with a man who spent his teen years as a child soldier for leaders who ordered him to kill and not cry, then fed him the livers and spleens of the slain for dinner?


Killers, victims or both?

Traveling from Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh to the mass graves at Choeung Ek, riders bounce along in motorized carts for more than an hour on pitted dirt roads, where life on the sidelines is a colorful mix of the exotic and mundane.

Rural Cambodians subsist in thatch huts—rickety squares propped along hectares of rice paddies, where fertile green fields mask the hand-to-mouth existence that defines their lives. Mothers tend to half-dressed children and scrub clothing in tubs while fathers repair hand-me-down tools. Rice steams in pots, women slice fruit and whole families stare idly at the foreigners passing by.

For a generation, survival has trumped justice in Cambodia, a country about the size of Oklahoma. Poverty and conflict have bred corruption, human rights violations are rampant, and millions of damaged souls remain in limbo.

Everyone in this country was scarred somehow by the reign of Pol Pot, who seized power April 17, 1975, and ruled until January 1979. His Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians—one-fourth of the population. Citizens were killed or starved, children were indoctrinated as soldiers, and hope was banished.

So far, these crimes have gone unpunished. But this spring, as this southeast Asian country marks its 30th year since the Khmer Rouge takeover, the United Nations moved closer to a long-promised international tribunal to prosecute at least some of those responsible.

At a March 28 meeting, the UN urged member nations to fund the tribunal, which is expected to last three years and cost $56.3 million. By day's end, 13 nations, along with Cambodia, pledged all but about $5 million, with Japan donating nearly half of what is needed. The United States contributed nothing, citing "legislative restraints."

When asked, 75 percent of Cambodians said they want to learn the truth about the Khmer Rouge, according to a survey from the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a nonprofit organization that preserves records from the Khmer Rouge to provide documents for the tribunal and for historical purposes. Nine out of 10 Cambodians lost more than one relative during the three years and eight months of Khmer Rouge rule. Three-fourths of Cambodians said they want the tribunal to serve as a role model for the young, to show them justice is possible.

Meanwhile, an estimated 20,000 former Khmer Rouge soldiers and workers live freely among Cambodian society. Some are killers, some are victims, many are both.

"The Khmer Rouge is a shadow," said Chhang Youk, the Documentation Center's director. "When you walk, it's behind you. When you sleep, it's in your dreams."


'You can change this!'

Arn Chorn Pond was about 10 when he was snatched from a street game of soccer by incoming Khmer Rouge soldiers. In a few horrifying days he watched them kill all but one of his sisters. He knew his odds.

Considered ripe for indoctrination, Pond was recruited and housed in a temple where killings took place three times a day. Years later, he estimates the number of deaths he witnessed to be 15,000, give or take.

To avoid being killed himself, Pond played propaganda songs on the flute for the enjoyment of Khmer Rouge leaders. He also learned not to cry.

Years of nightmares and suicidal thoughts followed. Haunted by the perpetrator in him, Pond recalled his own slow-motion swings and how he stood in circles with other children as they spat and laughed at those about to die.

"I'd wake up in the morning and say, 'Arn, what side are you on?'" he says. "And then another voice would say, 'Arn, what are you trying to do, be human?'"

Tears wouldn't come for Pond until he was a grown man, safely removed from Cambodia and living with a foster family in New Hampshire, in a world too comfortable for his private hell.

His foster father, a Lutheran minister, urged him to speak out about his experiences. So he traveled, talked about his life, and formed groups such as "Children of War" and "Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development." He is now cultivating a group called "Master Performers Project," for which he searches for surviving artists from the Pol Pot regime so they may pass along their skills and wisdom to the next generation.

Now, back in Cambodia, thin as a refugee, with street-wise eyes and laugh lines of a man of 42, Pond lives in his home town of Battambang. When he talks, his arms cut the air and his voice rises as he confesses his cursed childhood and lambasts Cambodia's current flaws, its corruption and human trafficking and so on. You can change this! he demands of his audiences. We will try, they reply.