Hokkaido Inaka

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Killing Fields

I visited the Killing Fields shortly after arriving in Phnom Penh on Christmas day last December. Due to some foolish behavior in Vietnam, our trip had been delayed and thus we found ourselves trying to fit everything we wanted to do in the capital into 24 hours. We rushed to the Killing Fields with our "trusty" cab driver/guide/hotel finder/money exchanger/master of outdated British humor Sunny late in the afternoon, hoping to get there before it closed. I had gotten it into my head that the Killing Fields would be a place where one could at least attempt to understand the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge and learn about the many thousands of people who died there. Instead I was met with an empty lot, adjacent to rice paddies, with deep depressions in the ground where they had excavated some of the mass graves. Next the depressions a wooden sign would simply tell you, in Cambodian, English and Japanese who was buried there. For example, 55 women 25 children Beheaded. I should also mention that because it was so late in the afternoon the Killing Fields were, according to the guide book anyway, closed and we were the only ones walking around(I guess with the exception of the people who were working on a giant traditional and very colorful Cambodian boat for some festival, and of course the begging group of children who finally left when we each gave them a few dollars--they have a powerful angle, you couldn't imagine the awkward feeling of standing next to giant mass grave of children and having these kids, no more than 10 years old, constantly hassling you for money, laughing and teasing each other, promising to go away and leave you to whatever your doing there if you fork over the doe).

So the three of us, alone on Christmas, walked around this historic site that felt like someone's back yard in stunned silence. Afterward we all were at a loss for words, but also in a little bit of disbelief over what we just saw and how normal the place seemed. With the exception of the depressions left by the excavated graves and the occasional bit of clothing or human bone sticking out of the ground--yes, the excavation didn't remove every body and new remains appear as the earth erodes and the paths are worn down by tourist--the place offered very little evidence and nearly no context of what happened. I left the Killing Fields knowing no more about the genocide than I did before I arrived.

So then, I felt very ambivalent a upon reading about the purchase of the site by a Japanese company(since for some reason I cant link within the text, so here is the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/06/international/asia/06cambodia.html?hp). On one level I was disappointed by my visit to the Killing Fields, and its strange to admit, but I think my disappointment stemmed from how unmoved I was by the place. If this company does what I would expect it to do and cleans up the area of trash, keeps out the begging children and gives more information to the visitors I wonder if it will be offering a more "valuable" experience? I guess if the purpose of making places like the Killing Fields and Auschwitz into memorials is to teach and remind people of the tragedy in order to prevent future tragedies, then it would seem that more effort and money would go along way at the site. That said, the lack of more "traditional" context that I think people expect from a place as infamous as the Killing Fields offers an equally valuable lesson: its a mistake to look at genocide and crimes against humanity as something other, outside our experience. Before they were used to bury thousands of slaughtered Cambodians(among more than a few foreign journalists) the Killing Fields were just that, fields. This fact was hauntingly clear in the Killing Fields I visited and made me and my two friends very uncomfortable, as it should have. I wonder if, with the addition of more context and money, that immediate experience of familiarity will be lost.


  • I guess when I read that the Japanese were buying the fields, I wondered about the intent of the Japanese and I wondered how the Cambodians could let them buy such a place. And what of Bataan? I will look in the paper to find the article.

    Do you remember driving across Germany when we came to long fields where World War I battles were fought. There was evidence that there were tunnels, etc., but it was all green and seemingly untouched. I see what you are saying about removing the eeriness...that a place can be for whatever us human decide to use it for. Just a field that was once tilled to plant food can be turned into something quite else. Outside of most of humanity's experience. Thanks for your thoughtful essay.

    Mom and Dad

    By Blogger Christine, at 5:50 AM  

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