Choeung Ek, Revisited and Revised

Shirley at the pond behind the stupa memorial - Choeung Ek, Kandal

Shirley at the pond behind the stupa memorial – Choeung Ek, Kandal

I was sitting in the café at Meta House, working away at m y first beer in months, simultaneously singing loud glories (in my head) to the technology that makes air conditioning possible. This is when I met Shirley Gunn, executive director of Human Rights Media Centre (HRMC) based in Cape Town.

This woman possesses the countenance of an ancient Grecian priestess with whom you could enter a discourse regarding the infinite mysteries of the cosmos, and then just casually proceed to chat about Barack Obama’s physically attractive qualities. Shirley dons a full head of short sage-like locks and a pair of eyes teeming with both rebellious sass and unruffled compassion. I took one look at the bold floral shawl she clenched around her shoulders and I just wanted to acquire my own super cool shawl, huddle over a fire, sip hot cocoa, and listen to all the stories she had to tell about her life as an activist in South Africa. Before I knew it, we agreed to head to the memorial at Choeung Ek Killing Fields the next morning.

Choeung Ek, south of Phnom Penh’s bustling city center, is one of the two genocide memorial sites in Cambodia most frequented by both foreigners and nationals. The other site is the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes, (I would revisit this iconic historical landmark a month later in November.) During Khmer Rouge years, the vast majority of prisoners detained, interrogated, and tortured at Tuol Sleng were executed at Choeung Ek, which had formerly been a Chinese cemetery. Bodies were deposited in one of the many mass graves that Vietnamese soldiers happened upon when they sifted through Cambodia after the regime downfall in January 1979.

The memorial at Choeung Ek on my April 2008 visit - Choeung Ek, Kandal

The memorial at Choeung Ek on my April 2008 visit – Choeung Ek, Kandal

I first visited Choeung Ek in April 2008 when I was an undergraduate student. I remember arriving there – it was surreal. I had read about Choeung Ek. I had seen pictures of Choeung Ek. And now the infamous structure loomed before me. I also remember leaving there – it was unsettling. There was something disturbing about the site. I might have reacted that way just because I was accustomed to a particular culture of death and mourning – you just don’t see too many bones hanging out in the open at your average American cemetery. I also understand a visitor isn’t supposed to leave a genocide memorial with warm, fuzzy feelings. But still, I questioned whether a certain amount of disrespect had been done to the remains of the victims at Choeung Ek. Skulls were neatly stacked inside the central glass core of the memorial like a retail display. Naked and vulnerable bits of teeth and scraps of clothing sprouted from above the dirt walking path winding through the back of the site. Little did we know as students, while we snapped away with our cameras at the picturesque distance, that we were trampling on victims of the Cambodian genocide.

Skulls inside the stupa memorial - Choeung Ek, Kandal (Photo by Matthew Terebessy)

Skulls inside the stupa memorial – Choeung Ek, Kandal (Photo by Matthew Terebessy)

This is what I meant by “something disturbing.” I was curious to see what Choeung Ek Take Two would be like when I went with Shirley on Saturday.

Take Two was totally different.

Since Shirley and I visited Choeung Ek last Saturday, I’ve been trying to figure out why I left the site feeling so drastically altered from my first visit four years ago. This is what I’ve concluded:

2008 was a gaudily jarring performance.
2012 is a ritually moving storyboard.

The most obvious change at Choeung Ek has been the addition of an audio companion visitors may use to help guide them through the extensive grounds of the site. Just slip those headphones on, follow the numbered signs, and press the buttons on your control. It’s foolproof. And it makes a huge difference. It delivers a story.

Shirley on the path round the back between the pond and the lake - Choeung Ek, Kandal

Shirley on the path round the back between the pond and the lake – Choeung Ek, Kandal

The audio companion starts you at the entrance of the site facing the front of the memorial where you are introduced to a brief history of the genocide. You continue onwards to the far right side where you stand in the area prisoners were dropped off. Further back you survey the depressed pits and raised mounds of mass graves. Past a large pond, there is a path that circles the edge of a quiet lake. You can sit on a bench, while the audio plays a hauntingly beautiful orchestral piece. Along the path that takes you back to the front of the site, you will pass over patches of scattered white blooms, courtesy of the jasmine trees swaying above. In time, you will come full circle, standing before the memorial’s imposing white bodied and intricately roofed stupa, where you may climb the steps and survey the tiers of remains encased behind the glass.

The lake around the back of the site - Choeung Ek, Kandal

The lake around the back of the site – Choeung Ek, Kandal

When Shirley and I got back to Phnom Penh we lounged for lunch at the place she was staying at, the Blue Dog Guesthouse. (You should check out the place’s logo – its blue dog has such a charmingly gigantic head I’m sure the monster of Frankenstein would have adopted it as a domestic companion.) It was refreshing, talking for a number of hours, and watching the rain go off and on again outside. As I try to remember her collection of insights, the word “storyboard” comes to mind. I’m going to curate that word for this project on memory and credit it to her. She mentioned it a couple of times as we talked about history and narrative during our ride back into the city. But then, when she brought it up again while we were eating, the word struck me and my eyes went all big and my mouth did that breathless, hanging jaw action it does when I’m trying to process something. Someday a bug is going to fly right into my mouth and I will choke, or, I will unknowingly start drooling and suffer extreme embarrassment.

(End imagination of possible consequences of leaving one’s mouth open. Commence explanation of a serious subject.)

I hear the word storyboard and my brain instantly conjures up an image of those sketches that animators pin up on a wall to draft the narrative of a film. The storyboard is not permanent. It is a work in a progress. Shirley used the word storyboard to describe the nature of the historical narrative. The passage of time requires a historical narrative be revisited and possibly revised. For this reason, you cannot leave events of the past behind. They must accompany you as you move in the present and future.

Memorialization works the same way. It is not a product, like a history textbook or a piece of carved stone. It is a process. That’s what made the difference for me this last time at Choeung Ek. Moving around the site was a ritual. Like the stations of the cross, you are led to contemplate and move, and repeat. By virtue of the ritual, the memory of the genocide is not just lectured at you from a dark, distant point in the past. Memory is embodied in you, re-membered into being, as dynamic as an animator’s shrewdly thought out sketch.

I want to end with one last point about memorialization. A couple of week ago I furiously vented to my sister Amy about genocide memorials in Cambodia. I was angry, spewing statements:

  • “How could a community just leave the remains of victims in piles like forsaken corpses?”
  • “Why would they want to leave the remains of their people in these macabre arrangements?”
  • “It’s like you’re walking through the aisles of the supermarket.”
  •  “There’s just got to be a better way.”

I realize, again, I indignantly asked these questions from a Western mainstream culture of death, which tends to take a distanced and spookier stance towards the topic. 

After asking all this, what I really struggled with was this question: How do you memorialize? Is there even an answer to that question? I suppose it depends on your philosophy of death, or on how you practice grief and mourning. However, I’m not going to just leave it there and say, “It’s all relative.” I’m done resorting to that lazy, cheap argument. For now, I stand to defend this as my (working) philosophy of memorialization:

The memorialization of atrocity, trauma, and violence occurs when life and death enter the same space. The genocide memorial must foster this coexistence. Go ahead, tell the story of the reality of evil, however, you must also champion the noble fight for good. I think this is why Choeung Ek left such an impression on me the second time. Yes, the place reminds us of humanity’s capability to commit a gross deed. However, even at this site of death, life remains resilient. There, the furry caterpillars scurry across the dirt and the yellow butterflies flirt with the warm air. The baby ducks waddle after their mamas to the watering hole for a drink and a swim. Lanky dogs compete for shade space to take a lazy nap. The frangipani trees stretch their branches and bloom their flowers with each season. The caretaker diligently sweeps the paths. A red-feathered rooster pokes his head in a tuft of grass. A kid rides his bike. The memorial that commemorates how life counteracts death is the most powerful kind of memorial.

Thanks for a most lovely day Shirley.

Loose jasmine blooms scattered on a path - Choeung Ek, Kandal

Loose jasmine blooms scattered on a path – Choeung Ek, Kandal

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