The title of this post is credited to Hiroshi Sakurazaka and his novella of the same name.
You are dreaming. Or you are having a nightmare. It doesn’t matter. Someone kicks you in the dream. Someone kicks you again and you start awake, your eyes peeping open to a shadowy and blurry image.
“Mitt,” the image says and kicks you again.
“Mitt!” It takes you a moment to recognize the vernacular and you register the voice along with the word.
“Comrade! Wake up, it’s time for duty,” the image says. “Follow.”
You sit up, wipe the sweat from your face with your krama, and slip on your black pajama top.
You can tell the day has been hot as you watch the sun dip over the palms and rice fields in the west. The roar of the cicadas fills your ears and you already feel your body perspiring again. A breeze blows off the lake and hits your body, cooling it, if only for a moment. You follow the steps of your comrade. The path winds through the palms and eventually opens up on the compound behind the main office and storage room. You look for any new trucks but nothing has arrived yet–it is still too early in the day. Comrade must want you to do something in addition to your nightly duties. He stops abruptly, turns about, and begins talking.
“Comrade, there are new orders that accompanied last night’s batch,” he says in his rural accent. Your ears grate but you nod.
“Whatever comrade requests, I acquiesce,” you reply. He shoots you a disapproving look.
“What have I told you about that kind of language? Don’t forget that you are an opokar. Memory sickness only leads you there,” he says as he points to one of the pits.
“Including your night duties, you will now work two hours before the trucks arrive. You are expected to cut down at least fifty palm branches and stack them over there by the storage room. Make sure to cut the older branches at the bottom of the palm. If they are too fresh, they will bend and be useless. Understood?” he asks.
You’ve learned not to question. You nod your head in assent and accept the crude machete he holds out to you.
He points to the palms at the edge of the compound, approximately ten meters from the nearest pit.
As you hack away at the palm branches, you are reminded of your childhood. You hated these palms as a boy because the branches would always slice away at your body as you ran through the dense jungle that surrounded your parent’s orchard. Dad would fly into a rage over something, you would retreat, and inevitably return to the house covered in bloody gashes. Mom would shout at you, then hug you, then shout at dad. Eventually, you learned to dodge the branches, how to glide through the jungle untouched. How to glide through life untouched. But that was then, and this was now.
The machete is nearly useless. In order to remove each branch, you have to hold it with your left hand near the leaves and swing the machete with your right hand towards the base of the branch. It is hard work and even though the sun is setting, your pajamas still absorb the heat.
You begin to hum but stop as soon as a comrade walks over and taps you on the shoulder.
You stop swinging for a moment and clean your face with your krama.
Again, you swing.
You swing and the machete hits the branch without cleaving it, breaking the handle of the machete. The branch absorbs the force and slides across the inside of your left hand. The serrated edges of the branch gouge your skin and blood leaks out of the webbing between your thumb and forefinger. You take off your krama, wrap up your hand, and continue the work.
You dump the branches against the outside of the storage room wall and make your way to the compound office. As you walk, you catch a draft from the pit or the detention center–you are not sure which, they smell nearly the same–, and wrinkle your nose. The sun has finally set and the flood lights have been switched on. The trucks should be arriving soon.
“Comrade, I’ve finished,” you state matter-of-factly.
“Good, the trucks are scheduled to be here in fifteen minutes. Tell Comrade No to turn on the music.”
You walk the forty meters across the compound, around the pits, and tell comrade No to crank up the music. He accedes with a smile on his face. He likes the music. He likes his job. You never liked No and still don’t. He enjoys the compound too easily.
Comrade No stands up and points toward the main road that leads to the pits, “They’re here.”
You already heard the rumbling of the trucks on the dirt road, matching their rhythm with the music, before No marked them in the distance with his finger. In melding the two sounds, you were able to wish away the trucks.
But they still come.
The trucks pull into the compound and turn as they always do: to their right.
‘That’s not right,’ you think and cock your head slightly askance.
You look at No. “What’s going on?” you ask. “They always turn right, shift to reverse, and back up to the edge of the pits.” He shrugs and turns up the volume on the music.
The trucks startle and stutter to a stop.
Comrade Do Ge steps out of the compound office and waves you over.
You jog over to the office and see a mother in the back of one of the trucks, holding her daughter in a krama. She is attempting to placate the baby in order to keep her quiet. Your attention shifts back to comrade Do Ge. He signals to the cadre of men who are standing outside the detention center.
Two comrades enter the building and after a couple of minutes, a line of people come marching out of the entrance. Some are barely able to stand up. You notice a man re-adjusting some spectacles on his face. He stares at you through them once they are adjusted.
The line of men is led to one of the pits and halts. The man with the spectacles re-adjusts again. His glasses keep falling off of his face. He turns around and looks back at the trucks, an expectant and searching look on his face. He recognizes someone.
The woman with the baby in the krama screams and jumps out of the truck, holding the baby to her chest while she sprints toward the bespectacled man. No one moves except for comrade Do Ge who steps into her line-of-sight, raises his pickaxe handle, and swipes it soundly across her right temple. She falls, the krama dumps the baby, and the bespectacled man attempts to catch both woman and daughter. Her face is bloodied and besmeared with shards of bone and pink matter. Her breathing is raspy and she twitches. Comrade Do Ge leans over, picks up the baby, and hands her to you.
“Hold this,” he orders.
He drags the woman’s body over to the pit and kicks her in.
The man wearing the glasses is weeping, the child is wailing, but it is hard for you to hear either one over the roar of the music and the speeches of the commandant.
Comrade Do Ge orders the rest of the cadre to bring over the palm branches. Carrying a bundle in each hand, they return from the storage room. Comrade Do Ge exchanges his pickaxe handle for a palm branch, grabs the bespectacled man by the hair, and begins carving away at his neck. The man tries to fight and comrade Do Ge knees him in the face, knocking his glasses to the ground. His jaw goes slack and you think it is broken. Do Ge resumes carving with the edge of the palm branch. In the flood lights, you see the serrated edges of the branch turning the man’s neck into mash. He begins gurgling and convulsing, trying to scream as his own blood muffles the sound.
Comrade Do Ge saws through half the man’s neck before he stops.
“No more pickaxes or shovels. They have been re-allocated for agricultural labor. Use the palm branches instead,” he shouts over the music. “Get the people out of the trucks and into the detention center.”
He turns on you and says, “Follow.” He leads you to a tree in the center of the compound which is approximately a meter in diameter.
He stops at the tree and you see the comrade’s lips moving, but you can’t discern what he is saying. The speakers attached to the tree drown out his voice. He leans over and shouts into your ear, “Co…r..de Yes, sw…..ng…y….he….l…..gs!”
All you comprehend is your name. You gesture at your ear with your left hand–the krama still wrapped around it–while cradling the baby with your right.
He shouts your name again, “Comrade Yes!” and gestures at the baby. He then points to the legs, slaps his own hands–the right first, then the left–, and makes a swinging motion with his arms toward the tree.
You nod your assent, hold the baby by the legs, and swing with all your might.
My reason in writing the above story is to express the emotions and images that I consistently experience when I think about my visit to Choeung Ek. Writing a blurb about the killing fields and trying to tell someone about my experiences there is akin to drawing a stick figure of someone and saying that is what they look like. I had to go a little deeper. I had to share the narrative that plays out in my head each time I ruminate on the tree where the babies were dashed to pieces.
The memorial at Choeung Ek is located just 17 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh. While this area only contains the mass graves of those who were brought from Tuol Sleng for execution, the memorial is meant to represent approximately one-to-two million people who were killed in such fields throughout the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge. Most of the people who were systematically executed were doctors, teachers, lawyers, artists, musicians, politicians, or anyone who threatened the regime’s power because they were educated. Everyone else died from famine, disease, or hard labor. Citizens were forced to leave cities and many died on the marches as the population spread out into rural areas to begin communal farming.
When you arrive at Choeung Ek, the view is dominated by a massive Buddhist stupa. As you enter, you are given an audio guide that offers a lot of information about the Khmer Rouge and their operations at Choeung Ek. It contains the stories of the survivors who witnessed the Khmer Rouge killing their families and how they escaped. There was even a recording of the confession of the Prison Director.
The surrounding area of Choeung Ek is situated in a local village dominated by farmers, a school, a lake, tourist shops, and ramshackle houses. It was quite strange to be in such a solemn place and at the same time hear children laughing and playing in the background, the buzz of moto-engines, or seeing the local farm-animals mill about the area. An eerie silence pervaded the area which seemed to confront the ambiance of the outside world.
While walking around and listening to the audio guide, I reflected on the fact that I was walking the same paths as those people who were led to the pits for execution. In order to save ammunition, the facility was directed to use clubs or palm branches to kill victims. Not only were these people deprived of life and dignity, they were also brutally executed. Soldiers poured chemicals into the pits to cover up the stench of rotting bodies and to kill anyone who might still be living at the bottom of the pits.
As I walked around the area, many of the glass boxes for exhibition had stacks of bones piled on top of them. I thought it was quite disrespectful of the memorial staff to carelessly put the remains of the deceased wherever they pleased until I realized the bones were left by people who had found them while walking around the memorial.
I spent much of that afternoon reflecting on our capacity for systematic annihilation, which is usually driven by hate, fear, or ideology. I can only take solace in the fact that our capacity for annihilation and hate is tempered by our capacity for preservation and love.
At the end of the tour, the audio guide played the music that the victims heard as they were being executed. It was a sobering reminder that I would be allowed to leave the memorial and the music behind while forty years ago it had signaled impending death for those who were held at the facility.
My time in Phnom Penh was a somber affair, especially that day. You can meet people who still remember being a child soldier for the regime or who can tell you about how they watched their parents being executed. These are not the stories of their ancestors, these are their stories.