Visiting the Killing Fields

By Ariana Tosatto

stupa at the killing fields

Today was such a rich and full day.  It feels like we lived far too much to have had only one sunrise and sunset.  As Aimee and Katie have filled you in on, our morning started with the girls group at Transitions, which was followed by a trip to the killing fields of Cheoung Ek just outside of Phenom Penh.  Cheoung Ek is a site where over 17,000 men, women and children were murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime under it’s leader Pol Pot. I felt nervous as our Tuk Tuk sped through the long road out of the city, unsure of what to expect.  It is an odd thing, especially as a tourist, to visit a site of mass genocide and I sat trying to clarify my intentions.  The affects of the Khmer Rouge still linger, as the country continues to struggle with political corruption and a weakened economy.  Many of us have questioned how the intergenerational trauma and poverty that resulted from the Cambodian genocide may correlate to the high prevalence of sex trafficking here.  The trip seemed like an important piece of learning in our desire to hold a cultural context in the work we do.

         As we arrived at Choeung Ek we all were handed headphone for an audio tour.  One by one we put our headphones on as we walked towards a giant stupa with windows revealing rows of skulls.  As I look at the tower of over 5,000 skulls I check out unable to grasp the reality of what I am witnessing.  I follow the numbered trail that correlates to my audio guide and I am grateful to have a sense of direction provided.  I see signs that mark where buildings of torture once resided. Buildings where people waited to die and where lethal chemicals and weapons were stored.  I take in the ditches once filled with bodies delineated by wooden fences.  I struggle between the images of piled flesh in my mind  and the dirt and weeds that now take residence there.  I look at the silent witnesses in the trees and the plants that were victim to the bloodshed too. I wonder what the soil beneath me has absorbed and what it has grown over.  As I stand in front of a tall tree my audio guide tells me it was once used to hand speakers that played Khmer music to drown out the sounds of executions.  As the audio guide begins to play the song my mind begins to imagine the final cries of those not heard.  The next tree I stop at resides next to the ditch where women and children where buried.  I hear unthinkable stories of how infants were killed and look on at the bloodstained tree that took each blow. It is surreal to witness the scenes that flash in my mind as I behold sites accompanied by audio narration.  I know I have much response art to do.

       There is one image that I am left clutching in my heart, one that fills me with hope and comfort amidst so much darkness.  An image not imagined but beheld, the sight of dozens and dozens of monarch butterflies fluttering in the landscape around me.  In the midst of so much heaviness I am memorized by their lightness as they glide in and out of ditches once filled with bodies.  The sunlight dances around them creating a brilliant silhouette of shimmering light.  For some reason they are the only part of the experience that feels real.  Maybe they are the only part of the experience I want to be real.  As I end the tour the final stop on the audio guide is the stupa filled with skulls.  The voice on the recording explains that the architecture of the stupa has special significance to the Cambodian people in honoring those lost. At the top of the stupa there are Nagas, which are serpents typically depicted with seven heads, and Garuda birds, both symbols found in Buddhism.  Nagas and Garuda birds are enemies and when the are seen existing in one place it is a symbol of peacefulness.  It seemed like an incredibly poignant message about the need to embrace the perceived enemy within self and other in order to find peace in our world.

3 thoughts on “Visiting the Killing Fields

  1. I am beyond amazed at the experience you guys are having in Cambodia. I am sad that I was not able to meet you except via skype but I hope you are enjoying and learning a lot about the culture. Also very happy that you were able to visit the team at Ragamuffin (aren’t they amazing! its kinda like working for Naropa minus the warrior exams). Good luck on the rest of your trip and many blessings!

  2. Ariana, this post brings an immediate visceral feeling of the ancestral suffering and hope of the culture and expereince you are all engaging in and with. Very powerful. I’m grateful.

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