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The echo says ‘don’t forget me’

By April 19, 2020May 22nd, 2020No Comments


This issue, Fiona Hyde takes us vividly to the soft dusks, jewel green landscapes and killing fields of Cambodia…

The marks of the Angkar’s three years, eight months and twenty days are felt all over Cambodia, their history not really history yet at all. There are over 300 killing fields around the country, some made into monuments to the dead, some lost forever to the jungle. In the most famous and visited of these killing fields, Choeung Ek, several kilometres outside the capital city of Phnom Penh, bones still rise, especially when it rains, and teeth drift on the top of the deep pits. Dead people’s coloured, faded clothes are tangled into tree roots. You see them as you walk around. The people who keep Choeung Ek collect all of these when they surface fully and then place them in a special box. You can view the box too.


In the city, a high school was made into a torture camp for the duration of Angkar’s chokehold. When they were finally running scared, the prison staff tried to destroy the records before fleeing, but they didn’t have time for them all. In the audioguide, a historian tells us that one feature of almost every totalitarian regime in history has been a near obsessive need to document what they were doing. The theory is that the compartmentalisation of tasks, the bureaucracy I suppose, made it easier for people to believe they were simply doing a job.

In the remaining records were many photographs of inmates. A decade later, Cambodians would go to see them displayed, their eyes searching across row and row of pictures, scanning the proud, sad, blank, scared, defiant, diverse faces looking back, hoping to see a family member — and I suppose, hoping not to see a family member.

On the way from the city to the killing fields, we drive through rural dirt roads to arrive at the back. We pass by farms, houses. In a car, you see brief snapshots of the landscape as it advances, gone almost as you can grasp it, already receding — you know yourself. As we drive, an older couple are in front of their wooden house. Like many of the houses on the outskirts of cities and in rural parts of the country, its built simply and up on large stilts. They are washing in the yard and the old man is standing naked in front of an urn of water.

I turn my eyes away, feeling like I have violated a moment of human intimacy I was not meant to see. It doesn’t feel fair that I looked, that I saw, even though I didn’t intend to. I didn’t know what I was looking at until I had already seen him. We drive on to the killing fields.

A very orange and soft looking dust contrasts vividly with the rich green of the fields outside Kratie — which is a patchwork of green jewel tones, some deep and some bright. Dotted by the side of the road are wooden structures, lower by the bridge, the ones further out jutting upward on stilts. Hammocks and pergolas thread throughout the countryside, upturned buckets and empty plastic bags covered with a layer of the dust, the kind that seems like it must get into everything, even becoming a part of your skin.

This gives way to bursting fields of green all along the Mekong, farmland dense, lush, thick, unyielding as far as the eye can see. As we drive into the outskirts of town, the sun has begun its slow descent into proper sunset, but not quite yet. The bottom of the sky blushes a chalky pink that glows in the part that still contains clouds.

I think to myself that sky seems lower in Cambodia than anywhere I have been — like it touches the horizon, like it was painted lower down, like maybe I could touch it. The rest is faded baby blue, soft and pale, peeping out from the above the tall trees, which obscure the river then suddenly reveal it for precious seconds, glassy and wide and reflecting the sky above faithfully. Maybe I could touch it. After all, the sky belongs to me just as much as it belongs to anyone.

It’s important to look. The narrator of the audioguide tells us he is a survivor of the regime. He tells us how many members of his close family died or disappeared. He tell us that once we’ve heard the story, we become keepers of the memory too. He tells us all this, voice calm in our ears, as we walk. It belongs to all of humanity, because it must never happen again. Important to look, maybe, but more important to see that.

“I can hear your voice in my head.”

“What can you hear me saying?”

“‘Come here’ — I don’t know, things like that.”

Later: “Soon my voice will fade, and soon it will be gone.”

No reply, or at least not a direct one.

I can hear the voices of people I love in my head as clear as a bell. From the mundane — my parents disapproving tones as I leave something unlocked, urging me to not be lazy, do the right thing Fiona, use the padlock — to the aching echoes of people I love, their turn of phrase, the hum of their throat as their mysterious innards makes the sound work.

When does that go away? I hope it never goes away.

On a bunkbed in Bangkok, the signal is bad. My parents repeat my name, over and over, calling for me. I answer every time but they can’t hear me. Eventually they give up. Disconnected. I lie on the top bunk, staring at the ceiling. At first I will away tears but then I just will them to be silent, and I hope that the two Chinese friends in the room below me think I have a cold or something.

They say that the ringing in your ears after you hear after a loud noise is those follicles inside your ear canal dying, and you’ll never hear that exact tone again. Already I can’t hear your voice as well as I could. I suppose I knew that would happen. In time, maybe I won’t care. That’s sad to think, but it’s also brave, and hopeful in a way.

On the road from Kampot, night falls. We pass many jam-packed pick-up trucks stacked with people, wedged platforms of mostly or entirely women, I think — all standing, faces looking out the back, illuminated by our van’s headlights. They stand cheek to jowl, wearing faded but formerly brightly coloured work hats with sweeping in-built scarves to wrap around their mouths to protect them from dust, peaked to protect their eyes. Their arms are in the air holding onto straps, but it makes them look as if they are poised to ask a teacher a question.

At the side of the road, shacks serve suckling pig on a spit. As we pass, our driver goes too fast on the uneven and bumpy roads. Lanes seem like a suggestion — sometimes when he overtakes, we are three to the whole road, not letting any of the oncoming lorries, pick-up trucks, cars, motorbikes, scooters pass. More women look out from more platform pick-ups, their eyes watchful under their caps, staring out into the night.

It’s only later that I think our headlights must have blinded them. They probably weren’t looking at all, just turning their faces.

The echo says “don’t forget me”. Or at least not yet.


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