Going to church can become like tying your shoes when you’re a Catholic. You just keep doing it over and over. Tika takes things at face value. ‘I like Jesus, but I don’t like church.’ TJ tries to do the right thing, but has admitted after some masses that he couldn’t hear ninety percent of what the priest said. Does that still count? Dragging half-sleeping children into 5-o’clock mass on long Saturday afternoons, I get the impression it’s hit-or-miss. We could spend forty-five minutes kicking each other, or two might sleep, or the priest might say something that seems to shoot across the heads and hit me straight in the heart. After many shushings and elderly glares, Ernest has developed some of his own views about ceremonial catharsis. If we’re all open arms and holiness, then why do some people look at us like they wish Puck would drop dead? Does catharsis require silence? At least we’re not Episcopalians. We’ve had a few wish-I-were-dead moments in clapboard halls with those geriatric WASPs. No, you can count on Catholics to produce some screaming babies. And, since I’ve had many Sundays to mull this over, I wonder how real is that enlightenment if it can only be conjured by stodgy old ladies in daffodil suits sitting in creaky silence. I need enlightenment on-the-go. I like a good loud church where kids are sucking the pews and crying out at all the wrong moments, wiping noses on dads’ lapels, because it seems to me that if you’re going to get some enlightenment, you’d better be able to get it with a toddler screaming in your ear and a kid falling off the seat next to you.
I guess it was in the same spirit that Yoshi and I decided over breakfast on Mother’s Day that the time had come to pay a visit to the Killing Fields. We’ve been here for three months, and won’t be here much longer, and it’s a place you can’t leave without seeing. Through the hodge-podge of Cambodian history the boys have picked up at school and in our conversations, I hoped they’d have some context to put this in, and then I figured they’ll find more context later on, like growing into clothes. Ernest and Yoshi were eager, and Puck is always obliging. Tika, however, dug in her heels. She remembers the Tuol Sleng Prison, and is haunted by a man who approached us straight off the tuk-tuk. His entire face had been burnt off, and showed only eyes and scar tissue. On the streets and entering church, she folds herself into my legs to avoid eye contact with amputees and so many disfigured beggars. Now she sees museums as the place where they are waiting for her. I tried to reason with her. It is a field. You will see grass and hills. Mommy will carry you. She drew her hands up to her face like little folded paws and consented.
From the gate of our apartment building, we rode a tuk-tuk out of the city, along Sihanouk Boulevard, then the long stretch down Monireth Boulevard, to the turnoff for Choeung Ek. The ride gets dustier as you get further from the city, and there are only plots for grazing cattle, fallow farmland, and a cement factory along the way. Yoshi looked out into the distance and enjoyed the breeze on his face. I tried to imagine what the late-night ride in a covered truck must have been like, blindfolded and hands bound, believing you were being transferred to another prison facility. Along the entry road to Choeung Ek are a few shops with tables, offering sodas, beer, cigarettes. We reached the lot outside the gates. Sure enough, two elderly men approached on crutches to greet us, hats in hand. Tika was shrinking back. But they wore broad, toothless smiles, and thanked me when I folded bills into their hats, pointing me toward the gate like welcoming hosts.
Between 1976 and 1979, Choeung Ek was hell. The Khmer Rouge took the land, once a peaceful Chinese cemetery, when they couldn’t bury all the victims of Tuol Sleng on the prison grounds. After giving in to forced confessions, many of the Tuol Sleng prisoners—former Khmer Rouge elites, doctors, writers, scientists, teachers, as well as wives, children, infants—were loaded into covered trucks and carted to this place, unloaded by dark of night, and led in single-file to the edge of pits. Death was unceremonious and continuous, hundreds at a time. Lacking more expensive weapons, their executioners used hoes, shovels, clubs. Babies were wrenched from their mothers’ arms, held by the feet, and beaten head-first against a tree until they died. Some were buried alive, with pesticides thrown on top. Some were executed naked. More than a hundred were decapitated, their heads apparently disposed elsewhere. All the time, a loudspeaker hanging from a nearby tree blared the cheerful music of a marching band.
And though I had read about Choeung Ek before coming, tears welling up as I saw the online picture of that tree with its sad marker, here we were on a sunny morning, walking through a grassy field, just as I had promised Tika. We entered the three-room museum—photographs of the Pol Pot clique, paintings of atrocities not photographed, descriptions of the excavations—and watched with Australian and Indonesian visitors a short film about the post-war discovery of this place. We crossed the grass to a tall pagoda-like monument. Inside, it houses a multi-storied glass column filled with skulls, jaw bones, femurs, layered by some order of approximated gender and age. At the bottom, in a heap on the floor, a pile of recovered clothing.
But this place is a Cambodian history-making, and if history is what you see of it from the present, then it is just as chaotic and disorganized as the rest of the country. There is no custodianship, no orderly arrangement for tourists. The glass display case inside the monument has sliding doors that were open on two sides, with skulls precariously tilted out in the open. Clothing piled at the bottom was spilled over into the walkway.
We passed outside, where the ground gives way to a deeply pock-marked field. With the discovery of the mass graves, Cambodian and foreign investigators excavated the area, counting victims as best they could, and marking sites. Now the grassy land dips unevenly around narrow dirt walkways where tourists pass. At some places in the grass are still more pieces of cloth poking from the soil. A museum worker indicated that heavy rains still raise clothing remnants from the ground. There is another glass box next to an outdoor signpost indicating recovered clothing, and it is open on top with more clothing fallen to the ground beneath. There are a few fenced-in areas with signs that provide details about particular graves—here women only, here the decapitated bodies. And then the place I was most afraid of, the tree where so many babies had been killed. Tika was already standing next to it when I approached, not taking any notice of the sign. And really it is just a big tree.
We are looking for stylized moments of truth when we erect memorials, and hoping these truths will awaken us when we visit them. I have read that Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are styled by the Vietnamese, to invoke a certain truth in which Vietnam’s role is a saving one. It’s hard to see how such poorly preserved memorials bear any conscientious plan, but these critics have a point. Over and over, the memorials remind you that Pol Pot and his clique were at the center of this violence. Little is said of the many ordinary Cambodians who themselves participated in the atrocities, and who today might be farmers and merchants. Nothing is said of the Vietnamese invasion, the installation of Hun Sen, who remains a dictator today. No explanation is given for the lack of any prosecution of Pol Pot, who died apparently of heart failure in 1998.
What did I expect? Cambodia is not a place for such contemplation.