I visited the Killing Fields today in Cambodia, and for once I feel like words might fail me.
The Khmer Rouge, a so-called communist party run by the terrifyingly insane Pol Pot, murdered three million people over the course of just three years. They were shot, beaten, decapitated, tortured and starved for no justifiable reason. This happened less than 40 years ago, in a time not so different to our own. It was so recent that you can still see bloodstains in the torture chambers of the prison, and you are cautioned to take care not to walk on victim’s clothing or bone fragments, which keep coming to the surface with each rainfall. It was so recent that when I saw an old woman on the street of Phnom Penh I knew she had lived through these terrors, and I stared into her face, trying to imagine what heart breaking memories her fathomless eyes harboured.
As I walked through the site of the Killing Fields, careful not to stray from the path in case I stumbled inadvertently into the site of a mass grave, I found the serene setting jarring – a verdant fruit field, with baby chicks fluffing about their mothers and butterflies chasing each other across the hazy blue sky. The sound of children playing filtered through from a nearby school, gratingly out of sorts with the audio guide’s reminiscence on the propaganda music that was blasted day and night to drown out the screams of the dying.
The Killing Tree reduced me to the tears that had been threatening all morning. Next to the grave of 160 people, researchers found a large tree whose trunk was covered with blood, hair and bone fragments. They didn’t understand until they researched the contents of the grave… Filled with the decaying bodies of naked women and babies, it was easy to deduce that the Khmer Rouge had swung the babies against the trees, crushing their skulls, as a way to save expensive bullets.
I want to know why.
Pol Pot was undoubtedly a mad man, but what of his followers? Many of these soldiers were recruited as teenagers, apparently ‘pure’ and untainted by the capitalist pollution of earlier generations. What was it that made these people think it was ever acceptable to slaughter a third of their own population? Although genocide is never comprehensible, it is easier to understand how people can be incited (wrongly!) to turn on those who are different, whether by race or religion. But Pol Pot killed his neighbours, his family and even his subordinates, and the rest of the Khmer Rouge followed suit.
Although some members defected, it was only a pathetic few, and I want to know why.
As history has shown us – or rubbed in our faces really – a monster resides within humanity. The reason I ask ‘why’ is because it is only the individual who can stop this from happening again. I don’t consider myself different or better than anyone else, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t fall prey to whatever bait has lured that monster out of so many before me. I ask ‘why’ in case I need to recognise it if it comes for me.