Asian literature, Bryan Thao Worra, Cambodia, Choeung Ek, Duch, five fragments, history, Kaing Guek Eav, Kang Kek Iew, Khmer Rouge, Laos, On the Other Side of the Eye, poetry, Pol Pot, politics, The Killing Fields, war
I’m here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the second time. Last year, I spent two nights here wrapped around a trip to Mondulkiri Province where I visited an elephant refuge. Since Mondulkiri was my ultimate destination, rather than Phnom Penh, I didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing. But I did manage to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
I vaguely knew about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge era* before I came to Cambodia. Kaing Guek Eav (also romanized as Kang Kek Iew, known as Duch) had recently been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role as deputy/chairman of Tuol Sleng Security Prison. I’d seen the film The Killing Fields when I was far too young to understand it, but I’d realized that a lot of people had died. I realized it was somehow tied into the U.S./Vietnam War. And I knew it had been something of a holocaust. But it was still a distant event to me, one of many atrocities our world produced in the 20th century. I didn’t understand, and I mean truly understand, until I stood in the sepia-tinted classrooms of Tuol Sleng and saw mugshot after mugshot after mugshot of victims: men, women, and very, very young children.
I tried to write about my reactions, in poetry and as an essay, and failed miserably. I need more information, I thought. I need to understand it better. So I read survivor stories, learned of the history, read other poets who’d written about the Khmer Rouge era. And today, on my second trip through Southeast Asia, I went to Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields.
At this point, I think I understand as much as I ever will. I had no Eureka! moment. These things — genocide, war, violence, a dictator’s deranged vision and paranoia — they aren’t sussed out like a sudoku puzzle. I wonder, though, if one can feel intensely enough, even in the absence of a logical understanding, that he/she might eventually be able to convey that intensity through writing.
Until then, I’ll leave you with the closing stanza of “five fragments,” by Lao-American poet Bryan Thao Worra.**
I still don’t know what to make of it all,
my head heavy as a mango
without a mouth to feed
*Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia on April 17th, 1975. Under Pol Pot’s vision of an agrarian, classless society, Cambodians were driven out of the cities and forced into farm labor under abhorrent conditions. As much as a third of the population died from starvation, disease, and execution in less than four years.
Tuol Sleng was a security prison in Phnom Penh, and Choeung Ek was the related execution field and mass burial site. An estimated 12,273 to 20,000 died. Only 7 to 202 people are thought to have survived. Choeung Ek was only one of many killing fields scattered throughout Cambodia.
**”five fragments” by Bryan Thao Worra, published in On the Other Side of the Eye, Sam’s Dot Publishing, Cedar Rapids, 2007. ISBN 978-1-933556-97-0. Available on amazon.