Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia.
Population: 1,325,681 (2008)1
The moto drivers that ferry sunburnt tourists from their guesthouses to the all the sightseeing spots in Phnom Penh occasionally sport burn marks along their calves, smooth ovals of scarred skin where their uncovered legs have pressed against the mufflers of their bikes. The women who carry fruit outside the temples sometimes carry similar marks of their lifestyle — sometimes it's just a slight hunch that comes from carrying one's livelihood on their shoulders, or sometimes it's tiny nicks along the flesh of their backs, like they've spent the morning running through thorns. The poorest of the poor have spines that seem to protrude like gnarled lengths of chain raised beneath the skin. In contrast, I am soft, pinkish, a blank white canvas. Each of our bodies gives away our stories, exposing to the light of day the hand we've been dealt.
Phnom Penh is one of those cities you sometimes see in poor countries that are rapidly coming into money. Huge, modern malls are surrounded by cheap marketplaces with shopfronts built from wooden crates, for instance. Down the road, you might see a mansion beside a series of grass huts. This imbalance of resources is not a surprise, but seeing the extremely poor and the extremely wealthy sharing the same plots of land can be. The contrast is alive on every street, down to the club we went to for drinks on our second night. This club floats upon pontoons, attached permanently to a riverside dock. Docked beside the floating dance floor is a riverboat. It was closed for a time as a result of a fated evening in which too many people were dancing at once, and the boat began to take on water. Caught up in the evening, the adrenaline, or perhaps the sheer novelty of it, the patrons continued to dance, the muddy water of the Tonle Sap swirling around their ankles, until wet and giggling they were forced from the boat. It took three months to repair the damages. It was from the back of this boat that I paused to take in the profound juxtaposition of wealth visible in the cityscape, just moments before the drugs kicked in.
I should explain. Pizza parlors in Cambodia usually sell marijuana. For most visitors, Happy Pizza is a delightful novelty, something to enjoy or avoid, but not something to think much about. These restaurants will typically sell joints (and even sometimes feature them right on the menu). Of course, marijuana is not legal in Cambodia, contrary to the assumptions of many, but its consistent presence underlines an important truth about today's Cambodia — namely, that people can get away with most things if they pay the police enough. We had contributed to this practice with a small purchase. Our host was handed a plastic baggie containing five joints, and then handed a sixth, separate, additional joint. This was the one we smoked on the riverboat later in the evening.
It hit without warning, zero to sixty in a heartbeat. One minute, I felt nothing. The next minute, I was completely, irrevocably lost. Something was strange: we'd shared one joint between four of us. How could any of us have been affected so strongly? We'd been buying from the same restaurant for weeks. And yet we were that affected. Colin was dancing, Eric was lost in some corner of his mind, and Matt was the first to remark on the strangeness of the situation. He continued to talk about a good many things — college football, Obama politics, and the people you meet while traveling. I strugged to keep up, sometimes turning to face the river as I listened, using the silver reflection of the moon on the river's surface as an anchoring point to keep me in the moment. I listened as he spoke of the things we'd heard tell of throughout the afternoon, of ethnic cleansing and prison camps, and he admitted then that it was all a farce, that he just didn't get. How could well-off American kids ever accurately internalize what it's like to live through a genocide? "It's like teaching a monkey to paint," he said. "The monkey can memorize the movements. He can move the brush. But he doesn't get what he's doing. Not really."
My train of thought was derailing fast. Whatever I'd accidentally taken, it had ruined me. I listened. His face catching the light just so, I could make out details I had never noticed before — I’d never realized how old he looked, the wisdom plain on his face, as if the image of an easygoing twenty-something were a mask that had slipped overboard. I thought about executions, imprisonment, and disease. And as he spoke, I heard nothing but the sound of the river bending around the bow of the boat, and I thought to myself: it’s no good, it’s still sinking, just more slowly. It’s sinking, it’s going down, I can feel the water and I’m not afraid.
If you've never been to the Killing Fields, this is the part where I explain it to you, minus the statistics. We're supposed to remember the numbers, because the numbers give us the scale. It makes it all easier to process. We need to remember the scale in order to understand why all of this matters. It's important to label the actions of the Khmer Rouge with the word genocide, because a genocide certainly took place. However, for too many of us, the word genocide sets things apart from the natural flow of history, as if the deaths of a few million in a few short years are a bizarre abberation, some sort of glitch in humanity's natural programming. Maybe they are. But, then again, maybe they aren't.
So, forget what you already know for just a moment. From the entrance, what you'll see is a simple field, the kind covered in weeds and wildflowers that you've probably seen a thousand times before. In places, the landscape is dotted with wooden signs in English and Khmer displaying background information and, of course, statistics. A beaten path leads you to a wooden bridge, and then the path continues, the dirt trail bending in a slow circle towards a wooded area. In the center of it all is a stupa filled with fractured skulls (8,895 of them) and faded clothing. These skulls belong to many of those whose who were executed here, from infants to the elderly. They were typically blind-folded and placed on their knees. Occasionally they were shot. More often, to save bullets, they were bludgeoned, stabbed, beheaded, or suffocated with plastic bags. Infants were either smashed against trees or tossed into the air and caught on bayonets.
It becomes more obvious as you continue along the path. Large craters that were once mass graves still contain scraps of clothing and shards of metal and bone; indeed, it's not unusual to hear a crunch beneath you and look down to discover that you've stepped on a skull fragment. Further up the path is a glass case containing teeth pulled from the dirt, unbroken, yellow, looking deceptively canine. Soon, however, you've left the bones behind, and the path runs along a lily-covered pond. Trees bend outwards from its banks, forming a kind of canopy along its edges, and a gazebo is perched along one edge. Tourists stop and snap pictures. The thought hits you: This place is beautiful.
Before you've completed walking the main path, the children are upon you. They're not allowed inside, but this doesn't stop them from begging outside the chain-link fence that forms a perimeter. Shoeless and shirtless, they slide bone-thin arms through the fence, palms upward, issuing a chorus of "money please?" And, if you're like me, you think: Maybe things don't change that much.
Everyone who writes about the Killing Fields, the S-21 prison camp, or any the many other sites at which the Khmer Rouge committed startling atrocities wants you to remember that the executioners were largely children. Scan a few articles about these places and count how many times you see the phrase “ages 9 to 15”. Maybe the first time you read this, it was shocking to you. Probably, you don’t blame these writers for including this detail. Child soldiers! The inhumanity of it is enough to make any of us hate the regime a little more. I don’t blame these writers either. I am one of them, I suppose.
I thought like this too, not more than a few weeks ago. And as I stood in front of that skull-filled stupa, I heard someone much smarter than myself say the following:
It is the most unremarkable thing in history to make someone kill someone else.
Evaluate this statement for yourself. Consider that the watchdog organization Human Rights Watch estimates between 200,000 and 300,000 children are currently being used by paramilitary and government forces in armed conflicts in over 20 countries. Consider the experiments of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. Consider that, under the right circumstances, anyone can break, just like a heart — quietly and easily.