Choeung Ek

14 December 2016

A wide, shallow lake encircled by trees, the water a cloudy yellow/brown and dimpled with thin but persistent rain from the grey clouds overhead. A uniformed gardener inspects the plants while keeping an eye on his young companion who plays by the waterside. There is motion in the detail but the overall impression is stillness, outside of time.

This will need a bit of context.

In early 2016 I found myself with a growing sense of stability after a series of tumultuous years. I'd been through depression, divorce, relocating from Scotland down to a new town in Kent, then moving again, across England to the West Country. From (almost) hand to mouth self-employment I'd managed to get back into my previous career as a computer programmer and from there I'd progressed to the more glamorous (and better paid) world of iPhone apps. As a result of this I'd become a viable mortgage applicant and had just bought & moved in to my new, off-plan maisonette.

With regular employment came regular leave entitlement, something I'd not had to think about for many years. Most of my holidays had been either working (as a dance teacher) or visiting friends & family but with a comfortable bank balance I was determined to find something more exotic and less demanding (at least on an organisational level). Some friends had recently returned from a tour of Vietnam which they raved about so I started googling and came up with a four-week trip through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, & Cambodia, a small group tour with local guides that seemed to have the perfect mix of comfort & challenge. I was more than a little apprehensive about visiting this part of the world - I grew up with scary images of the Vietnam War & Khmer Rouge, not to mention the lawless reputation of later Cambodia - but the company had been running these tours for many years and they had very good reviews so I decided to sign up, get my shots & visas, and load up on sunscreen & mosquito repellant.

The trip was great (you can read all about it here) and I'd quickly discovered that I felt remarkably comfortable in these very foreign lands. After orienting myself in a new location I'd regularly strike out from the safety of our guide & group, getting my own (relatively) unmoderated feeling & impressions of the place and its people before learning the facts, figures & history from the guidebook. I was still clearly a tourist but being alone changed how the locals reacted to me, often after a quick initial greeting I was left to myself, a minor curiosity in their daily routine. It also gave me the freedom to linger where my interest led me and skip forward where it didn't without worrying about the overall pace of the group.

When we crossed into Cambodia there was a perceptible change in the way the group was treated. Li, our new company guide (we had a separate one for each country) was as friendly & informative as his predecessors but made a point of saying that he could only answer some of our questions while 'on the bus', clearly implying that his responses might be monitored by external observers. This hint at authoritarian oversight was reinforced when we learned we'd have an additional, 'official' guide for some of our excursions, a dour, humourless woman who lived up to all the stereotypes of a state security functionary.

After settling in to Phnom Penh our first trip out was to Choeung Ek, one of the Killing Fields sites of the Khmer Rouge massacres in the 1970s. Our official guide began describing the events that had taken place there but her flat, uninflected delivery made the horrors & atrocities sound mundane & banal, unspeakable acts reduced to routine 'business as usual' and delivered like an accountancy report. I guess this is one of the tragedies of the human condition, how our conscience is all too easily suborned by ideological beliefs & systems, but it was all too much for me and I fled to experience the site on my own terms.

And so I walked alone and in silence, deliberately avoiding the suggested circuit so that the sights & explanatory notices came in a random, disjointed order. I read the signs as I passed but without dwelling on each one, letting a mix of impressions build up without trying to process them into a single, coherent narrative. The atmosphere was hushed, sombre & funereal with a central memorial Buddhist stupa filled with countless human skulls and the brief but harrowing descriptions of the killings & torture around the site but there were flashes of (very) black humour too - a sign asked Please don't walk through the mass grave! and a poster at the entrance stated that Pokémon Go is not Allowed to Play in Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, indicating (to me, at least) that for some visitors this was just another attraction to be ticked off on their 'must see' lists. The intermittent light drizzle added the final touch, (literally) dampening the mood without becoming strong enough to require shelter or an umbrella.

One of the pathways led around a small lake and it was here that I saw the gardener and his ward. The layout of the site meant that none of the buildings or structures were visible from the path and few of the visitors ventured into this area. From the camera's perspective this was just a stretch of parkland with a groundsman doing routine maintenance while providing some low-level childcare.

But my viewpoint filled the scene with meaning. This placid, nature-filled spot sat right beside a scene of unimaginable atrocity and it was as if the cries & screams were still dimly echoing around. Li had told us about his & his family's terrifying experiences during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and the gardener was around the same age, for him these events would be something from living memory and not just dry, historical stories. And now he was tending & guiding the new growth, using his experience to help steer the natural reemergence of life without imposing a fixed, predetermined structure upon it. The horrors of the past were still there, just beyond the trees, but this was a place of beauty that would develop in its own way while the rest slowly faded.

Li had also shared about the pace of political change in the country, saying that people of his generation were too emotionally scarred to risk challenging the powers that be but that he had great hopes for his children and future generations. And in the picture we have a small child playing & making their own discoveries while the adult keeps watch but at a distance, alert for possible dangers but not imposing their own direction or fears.

In the midst of such a reminder of the horrors that human society is capable of I found this scene amazingly uplifting. Despite the 'original sin' of the circumstances we are born into and live through we can each make our seemingly small contributions to steer the world towards what we see as a better state, and then step back as we hand it on to those who follow on after us. They may not thank us for our efforts (or even acknowledge them) but that is our gift to them, and its own reward.

July 2020