Children run and play hide and seek in the lush fields, oblivious to the fact that their playground is the site of unimaginable atrocities.
The dips and hollows signify the subsidence caused by the collapse of mass grave. A little boy hides from his friends in one of these hollows. Beneath his feet lies the remains of thousands of people. I walk on paths that are peppered with bones, visible to the eye, trampled into the ground over the years by pedestrian traffic. This is the location where over one million people where summarily executed by the Khmer Rouge for breaches of discipline. Where Pol Pot encouraged children to spy on adults and brainwashed them into executing family members without question or remorse. I conjure up an image of what this place was like all those years ago. Using Hollywood to visualise the scene, I’m transported back in time. These are the Killing Fields of Cambodia and I’m struck with the realisation that I would be standing knee deep in decaying bodies and I shiver at the thought.
A man in his late fifties sat on a bank overlooking the fields. He greeted me in broken English and we started to speak. Gradually his story emerged. He had been a prisoner in the Tuoi Sieng interrogation and detention centre in Phnom Penh. He described unspeakable horrors and told me that 15,000 people were tortured and executed in that prison. He was one of seven survivors and escaped death by hiding under the corpses of his executed countrymen. He was drawn to this place by the nightmare of what happened, a life’s pilgrimage to an unholy shrine.
Later that afternoon I spoke to an elderly woman in a nearby village. She had a twinkle in her eye and a willing smile. Her friendly disposition masked her memories of personal tragedy; a loss duplicated a thousand fold in villages throughout her beautiful country. She lost her entire family in the war. Her husband became victims of the Khmer Rouge for failing to work hard. Her children were swallowed up by the turmoil of trying to survive a regime that annihilated over a third of the country’s population during a four-year period. She waited for years expecting them to return. Thirty-five years later she still lives in silent hope.
I’m numbed by the horror of it all. A burning question rings deep in my head and stayed with me for days. Why?