Memory in the Trees

By Paula Ulrich

The following poem and artwork is a response to my visit to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (The Killing Fields) near the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Please note, this poem contains graphic language, imagery, and metaphor which may not be suitable for all audiences.  Through learning about these atrocities and sharing my response, I hope to echo the sentiment I was told on my tour:

“This was hardly the first case of genocide.  We never thought it could happen here.  But it did.  And the thing is, it can happen anywhere.  It did in Nazi Germany.  And in Russia, under Stalin.  And in China.  In Rwanda.  In the US, with its Native Americans.  And in Argentina, and in Chile.  Tragically, it will probably happen again.  So for your sake, remember us – and remember our past as you look to your future.”


Memory in the Trees

The memories are in the trees

As they grow rings around fragments of bone

Scars from the violence inflicted upon them

Blood covering their trunks

As the heads of innocents were smashed up against their sturdy bodies

Enduring through every blow against them

Weeping sap in mourning

Surrendering flowers, falling in compassion


A tree called magic, where no magic existed

When speakers were hung from its twisted branches

Music to spread propaganda by day

And to muffle the screams of the victims by night

But the trees could still hear

The gut wrenching sounds of suffering

Beyond the nightmarish din of diesel generators

They were silent witnesses


The sugar palm, once sweet and pristine

Used its strong branches for holding up its leaves


The sharp blades of its arms

Used for weapons of murder

Slitting the throats of victims, silencing their cries

The trees did nothing wrong


Their roots reach deeper into the tainted soil

Drinking tears of rainwater

Mixed with blood and DDT

Reaching into the open sores of mass graves

Now unearthed, hollow, and empty

The roots hold the memories of a deep, dark past


There is a peace in this place

Disguised in the songs of birds

And wind rustling through the tree tops

Whispering through the groves

Where people were forced to labor and starve

While harvesting food they were forbidden to eat


The sun continues to shine

On the terrible truth

Surfacing from the soil after the clouds cry out

The earth births the dead

Spitting up their teeth

Flooding brings cloth and bone to the surface

The dead rising up from their graves

Refusing to stay at rest


Insects scurry across the surfaces

Digging deeper into the earth

Creating homes and continuing life

Breaking down matter

Giving back to the land

All carrying on

Knowing even they cannot undo what has happened


The trees were here before

And will remain long after

No image or word can truly express

The depth of feeling and emotion in this place

The pain the ground knows

The suffering the roots hold

The stories the branches reach to heaven to tell

But the memories are in the trees


To learn more, you may want to visit the following websites:

     Khmer Rouge Tribunal

     Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program

     And Cambodia Tribunal Monitor


Thank you.


Please note that while individual members have varying views on topics discussed in our blog, NCAS-I as a whole honors multiple perspectives, within respectful reason, and does not aim to censor material shared in our blog writings.  So please keep this in mind while reading our blogs.  And please feel free to add your perspective too.

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