For centuries the trees have told us tales – whether they be stories whispered of fairyfolk ‘neath the woodland canopy, or literally via the paper these great literary giants produce.
The trees have always spoken, and we, have always listened.
When Andrew and I decided to visit ‘The Killing Fields’ of Cambodia, neither of us had an inkling, that yet again, the wood would have a story to tell.
It is impossible to write a blog evoking anything but a semblance of the horrors that occurred in Cambodia during the latter half of the Seventies. The crimes being so vast, so heinous, that any scribe, certainly many with more talent than myself, would struggle to fully describe, or even make sense, of this international tragedy. But, after visiting the sites of these abominations, I feel I must have a try and put pen to paper – so to speak.
As a theatrical young lad I had heard of Pol Pot, the Maoist maniac who overtook this land. No doubt because I had a wonderfully, socially-concious headmaster, who thought we should all read Tolkien and play cricket. Two things I can honestly say I have taken little interest in, being neither interested in goblins or googlies. He also encouraged his students to think about those kids more luckless than us, and I can remember completing at least two sponsored walks for the children of ‘Kampuchea’ – a far away place that had changed it’s name. Of course, whilst walking miles, as a child of seven, I had no idea of the dreadful facts, just the need for a plaster afterwards!
In 1975, on April 18th, the day before Andrew’s fifth birthday, the smiling dictator, Pol Pot, and his murderous crew, the Khmer Rouge, took power in Cambodia, by way of a bloody revolution. Within twenty-four hours, they had begun to forcibly evict every citizen from every city in the country. Doctors, teachers, children, monks, nuns, – everyone with any hint of an education.
Those who were unfortunate enough to wear glasses, or who had ‘soft hands’, were killed immediately. The same fate befell anyone who could speak a foreign language. Hospital patients, the sick, the dying, were forced to march or limp, with whatever they could carry, into the impoverished countryside to begin work in forced labour camps, which were given the tragic misnoma, ‘collective farms’!
This was just the beginning of Comrade Pot’s misguidedly cruel experiment envisaging a return to an idyllic age where all worked on, and lived off, the land. The ‘Angka’ was a mythical idea, like ‘Middle Earth’, that big ‘Brother No1’ simply made up.
Everyone who was suspected of previously living a ‘light life’ in the city, whilst their peasant brothers toiled the soil, was imaginatively tortured. Sometimes for months. This practice was carried out by the crazed, fiercely loyal Khmer Rouge brigade, done in order to elicit false confessions and mendacious accusations against friends and loved ones. Therefore signing the death warrant of both themselves and their accused.
Three million men, women and children had been sadistically murdered and starved to death by the time the nutty Pol Potty and his Khmer Rouge were overthrown.
And so, today, I try, in vain, to tell the story of this brutalist regime and the madness which ensued, but, of course, it is impossible. I can only describe our little experience. Our tale of a day trip from hell. But one which, I am very glad we made.
We left the city early in the morning, so as to avoid the heat of noon, escorted by Hong, our trusty, toothy, tuk-tuk driver, with whom we had arranged our ‘outing’. As we juddered our way through streets that may even have appalled Charles Dickens, we had only little idea of the horror which lay ahead.
When visiting ‘The Killing Fields’, the visitor is provided with a headset to provide an audio commentary of the points of interest. Much like The Tower Of London, in fact, the torture and insanity are somewhat similar, yet the evil that took place here was only forty years ago, not eight hundred!
As we strolled in silence around the mass graves, being instructed to be careful not to tread on any bones, the weight of the crime which unravelled here began to reveal itself. The atmosphere became heavier and sadder with every new, lurid revelation of barbarism, recounted through the headphones.
It was sensitively done, especially for a country with a love of kitsch, but there were moments I simply had to remove them from my ears and pause.
It was when we reached the first ‘special’ tree of the tour that I finally succumbed to the weaker sensibilities that the pathetic tourist has the luxury to feel.
Known as ‘ The Killing Tree’, it was here, that the idoctrinated, mindless Khmer guards, some of them only children themselves, would take the infant prisoners by the ankles and swing them hard against the tree. Smashing the babies skulls against the great trunk, their tiny trunks no match for mother nature, or the abomination of it which gripped their tiny feet.
When the tree was first discovered, it’s bark was stained with blood, it’s cracks and crevices still grasping the children’s downy hair torn form their battered scalps. Butchered beneath it’s boughs.
The children’s mothers were forced to watch these acts before being raped, battered and thrown into the pit besides their little sons and daughters. Cast into the mass graves beside The Killing Tree.
It was almost midday, and the shade provided shade but no relief. I am not ashamed to say, that beneath my flash, western sunglasses, I wept.
I was not alone.
Bullets were considered far too expensive to waste during the age of ‘The Democratic Republic Of Kampuchea’. Instead, it’s victims were bludgeoned to death with whatever came cheap. Hammers, axes, hoes, tyre irons, whatever came to hand. Many were thrown into the pits whilst still alive, then smothered with chemicals to hide the stench and aid decomposition.
Andrew had gone ahead. I sat for a moment alone, to regain my composure. I didn’t want to appear over emotional, like the pissed aunt at a funeral. I pondered a moment, that how often it seems to me, that countries which have ‘democratic’ in their title, rarely display very much democracy.
The second tree was almost worse, this great natural wonder, similar in genus to the one The Buddha sat under to attain enlightement, once housed The Party’s speakers and generator. It was from these branches that the group’s macabre, musical, political propaganda blossomed. These great limbs carried forth the message of the Khmer Rouge. Blasting forth to cover the screams of those having their limbs removed. To disguise this depravity from the outside world. To stop the rest of us from finding out and helping these poor, defenceless people.
Even when the madness was over, because the Communist Vietnamese helped to establish a new Cambodian national government, western powers refused to acknowledge this evil. In fact the Khmer Rouge was still recognised as the official goverment of Cambodia by The United Nations, despite being responsible for the deaths of a quarter of the population.
Imagine. If one in four people, in your country, were murdered, by fellow countrymen, speaking your language, with your customs, and no-one came to help! How would you feel?
To me, it is unimaginable.
I really have no idea how these decent, charming, kind and dignified people have recovered so quickly from such genocide. But bounced back they certainly have, and with a gentleness and spirit of reconciliation that is a lesson to us all. Their sheer humanity is a shining example to ours.
I have always had a fondness for an old song from ‘Paint Your Wagon’ that goes,
‘I talk to the trees – but they don’t listen to me…’
It has always been so touching to me.
Today, here in beautiful Cambodia, the trees talked to me. And I did listen.
I was truly touched, and I will never forget their tragic tales.