Part 7: Ghosts and Wrong Turns
We spend most of Sunday visiting with friends in Takhmau. The children amuse themselves by pursuing geese, bunnies, and a rooster. Monday is similarly uneventful; we relax in Phnom Penh, venturing out for a trip to Monument Books (No. 111, Norodom Blvd.) to pick up a few things to read. Not only does Monument Books have an outstanding selection of books about Cambodian culture and history (in several languages), they also have many general-interest titles as well. Just the place when you have one kid who is dying to read stories about ancient Egypt, and another who is convinced that he needs yet another book about dinosaurs.
On Tuesday morning, our plan is to visit Tonle Bati. Tonle Bati is the site of an 11th century temple, and it's also a popular lakeside resort. Across the lake, however, is another historical site with a far darker past. Known locally as Sang Prison, it was an execution facility during the Khmer Rouge years.
I want to see Sang.
It's difficult to explain why. The previous winter, I spent many, many hours reviewing books, articles, and interviews in an attempt to calculate the death toll of the Khmer Rouge regime. Focusing on numbers, however, has the paradoxical effect of making the real nature of the tragedy more abstract. Visiting the killing fields is stark reminder that there is a human dimension that the numbers can never fully reveal.
A friend had suggested that Sang would be relatively easy to find: just ask any of the locals around Tonle Bati.
The first person we ask, however, gives us incorrect directions. We wind up a few miles down the road, at a large temple. My wife asks one of the laymen about the killing field.
Right here, he says. He points to a pavilion-like stupa fifty yards away. The bones are over there.
Yet I know from descriptions that we are not at Sang Prison. Srey explains in greater detail the place we are looking for; during the 1950s, she explains, it was a teacher training college. Oh, the laymen exclaim, and together they point back north. Yes, that's a different place, a few kilometers up the road.
This speaks volumes about the nature of the Khmer Rouge regime: go in search of a killing field, take a wrong turn, and you will merely wind up at a different killing field.
Srey and I are outside, and Anna and Sean are still both sitting in the van, reading. I am wondering what to say when they ask me why we are here, and what this place is.
Srey simply takes the direct approach. She throws open the door of the van. "Do you want to see real skeletons?" she asks.
"OK!" they reply cheerfully, and bounce out of the van.
The laymen guide us around the grounds. The stupa was erected recently. Inside, behind glass and iron doors, a pile of skulls and bones is adorned with brightly-colored ribbons. An inscription above the doors, in Khmer and English, reads:
"THIS STUPA WAS RECONSTRUCTED BY MRS. SATH VIBOL TO HONOR MY LOVELY FATHER AND OTHER PEOPLE, WHO WAS TORTURED AND KILLED BY THE GENOCIDE REGIME LASTING 3 YEARS 8 MONTHS AND 20 DAYS (1975 - 1979). YOUR MEMORY WILL STAY IN OUR HEADS FOREVER."
Inside the main temple building, one of the laymen gestures at the walls. On both sides of the building, about every ten yards, a few inches above the floor, there is a small hole bored into the concrete. He lifts his foot toward the hole and clasps his ankle.
Suddenly I know exactly where I am. People were chained here. This place - Wat Sauphy - is also known as Kokoh Pagoda. I recall a passage from Ea Meng-Try's The Chain of Terror:
"The sanctuary, monks' quarters and school at the wat were used to hold prisoners. The monks' residence west of the sanctuary was turned into an interrogation room. In early 1980, holes were found in the sanctuary walls, which the Khmer Rouge had drilled to anchor leg shackles. There were three rows of shackles; each could hold 30 to 40 persons. The monks' residence south of the sanctuary was used to house interrogators. The fields surrounding the temple in all four directions and the pond in front of the sanctuary became killing fields and gravesites. About 60,000 people were executed at this temple."
In the aftermath of Pol Pot, the walls were stained with blood; now, they have been repainted with murals of Buddha's life. As you face the altar with your head bowed, the small holes in the walls haunt your peripheral vision.
Outside, one can still see the subtle depressions where the bodies were unearthed. Banana trees were planted nearby in the hope that the grounds could be reclaimed for the living. The trees grew quickly, the layman said, but the fruit was no good: it had a strange, salty taste.
Leaving Wat Sauphy, we travel back north and turn onto a small, bumpy dirt road. There is no other traffic except for an occasional bicycle or oxcart. After a while, we can see Bati lake, and then, in the distance, a concrete water tower.
We turn toward the water tower and are soon in a clearing. There is a small stupa, and another simple shelter with open walls and a tin roof. A small sign in front of the stupa carries an inscription in Khmer. Across the clearing, a few broken concrete walls are still standing.
Today, this is all that remains of Sang Prison.
Beneath the tin roof of the shelter, there are a series of paintings at the tops of the open walls. They depict scene after scene of horror: prisoners shacked by the ankles, infants stabbed with bayonets, a woman's stomach being slit. Staring out at these scenes from the corner of the shelter, two larger paintings show the Buddha, sitting serenely in the shade of a bo tree.
Farther away, there are a few small thatch buildings. Our driver begins walking toward them; I stroll through the weeds and debris toward the broken concrete walls. Here and there, one can see the foundation of other buildings, the remnants of an old sidewalk, a deep walled pit that might once have been a basement.
Then the ghosts begin to cry.
Our driver hears it first: it is the unmistakeable sound of a child crying, but there is no one there.
From my vantage point, I can see the phantoms. They have four legs, short fur, and horns: goats.
I'm not afraid of spirits. I am, however, a little worried about having an angry goat ramming its horns into my ass.
The goats glance at me, uninterested, and continue walking.
A man comes out from the thatch house. He brings the keys to the stupa and opens its door, revealing a pile of human bones stacked like cordwood.
He tells Srey that there is a rumor that the government wants to build a new prison on the site. "A new tay-buy," says Srey. Tay-buy ("T-3") was Cambodia's most notorious prison during the 1980s, when enemies of the new regime found themselves locked away within its grim walls. Nonetheless, T-3 was at least a prison in the conventional sense, and not simply an extermination facility, like Sang, or Tuol Sleng.
The man tells us that the local farmers are unhappy about the plan. Whether or not it will come to pass remains to be seen. For now, the goats hold sway.