The incense burning by the green welcome mat was indeed welcoming, but the tower of skulls rising in front of me was decidedly not.
Taking off my sandals, the din of Phnom Penh, the tourists, and the ticket office disappeared entirely, and I entered a cloud of hushed reverence that seeped out of the stupa in front of me.
Inside the glass door, I found just enough room for me and my camera to squeeze by the other visitors paying their awed respects to the shelves of skulls stacked to the ceiling.
Each skull belonged to a person who was slaughtered, starved, or worked to death by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime during its reign of Cambodia in the 1970s.
When the communist Khmer Rouge took over, they declared a new order of society, one in which its citizens would be reduced to brainwashed peasants working the land like robots.
They killed off anyone who was educated or could possibly raise their voice against them – teachers, doctors, engineers, religious leaders – as well as their families so that there would be no one left to exact revenge.
By the time the regime fell, roughly one in four Cambodians had been killed by it.
As I lifted my camera to my eye and focused its lens on the bones, my hands felt weak and sweaty. I could almost hear my heart thumping. The click of my shutter sounded like a gunshot echoing through the somber chamber.
I made my photos with a feverish intensity, yet felt desperate to crawl into a faraway corner where I could sit alone and cry.
When the Khmer Rouge was “cleansing” their society, they used the land I was standing on to kill their victims as quickly as possible, tossing their bodies into mass graves.
The land is now called the Killing Fields, one of many scattered throughout Cambodia.
While they’ve turned the site into a museum, memorial, and tourist attraction, rain and soil erosion still bring bones and fragments of clothing up to the surface. With human remains at every turn along the tour, it felt like visiting a battlefield, slaughterhouse, and graveyard all at the same time.
Behind the stupa stacked with skulls stood a tree leaning heavily to one side, its bark dripping in memorial bracelets as if replacing the blood and tears of the children whose skulls were smashed against it.
It’s called the Killing Tree.
I found small offerings nestled in its roots – a few candies, some money, a paper swan. I couldn’t really fathom the things that tree had witnessed nor did I really want to.
What kind of inhumanity could be so powerful as to cause a human being to swing a baby human being into a tree?
It reminded me of a Holocaust memoir I once read of a Nazi soldier smashing a baby against the side of a train. The image had been so horrifying, I still remember staring at the page in disbelief.
I had never heard of brutality in that form before. It was something that the history books, history teachers, and history movies had failed to mention.
Yet here it was again.
I didn’t learn about Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge in school, at least not that I can remember. Did you?
I have a feeling the average American couldn’t name a genocide outside of the Holocaust if you asked them to, yet how many times has this story repeated itself and why does no one seem to learn from history?
And for the much bigger question: Are we a part of the problem?
When well-fed American kids who go to school every day can’t find a “foreign” country on the map and when dictators wipe out people groups whose names educated Westerners can’t even pronounce, I’m inclined to think we are.
When a country lacks empathy and a sense of global citizenship, when politics preach “us vs. them” instead of peace, when ideologies insist so fiercely on the veracity of their beliefs that it blinds them to the common value of every human being, then yes we are all a part of the problem.
So what can we do? I think it’s simple. But not easy.
Learn empathy. Don’t be ignorant.
Talk to people. Listen to their stories.
Read books. Watch foreign films. You know, the kind with those things called subtitles.
Travel. Go to Cambodia. Or over to the “scary” side of town. Whichever frightens you more.
Teach your kids the value of every human being. Encourage their curiosity.
Watch your language when you talk about people who are different than you more than you watch your curse words.
Forgive the bad driver in front of you for you know not what they’re going through.
You get the idea.
I’m terrible at pretty much all of this. Maybe that’s why the world doesn’t change because we’re too scared to change ourselves.
But if you don’t have a basic understanding of every person’s worth and a basic ability to empathize with people you don’t understand, then why would you have a problem with bashing babies against trees while slaughtering their parents in the field next door?
I don’t know. Do you?
To learn more:
- The History Channel online (a short and simple overview of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge)
- Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor (a long, detailed, and completely engrossing true story)
- Academy Award winning film The Killing Fields (if you prefer moving pictures)
- Or go visit the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center outside Phnom Penh. That’s right, go to Cambodia.