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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 3, September 2016

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Marietta McGregor
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia


Death Orchard

The bus drops us in a dusty car park and we are told we have 50 minutes to walk around Choeung Ek then we are to meet back here. Once a Chinese cemetery and longan orchard, the open space now consists of paths snaking around low knolls that enclose shallow muddy depressions, the whole bordered by fragrant blossom trees. A small museum stands at one corner, and in the grassed centre rises the narrow tower of a Buddhist stupa. Two saffron-robed monks stroll one of the paths.

a box of work clothes the family leaves at midnight

The paths around the pits are of reddish clay, trodden smooth and polished after this year's monsoons which are now over. Signs urge: “Don't tread on the bones” before we see them, here a lower jaw still with teeth, there a scatter of phalanges and one creamy yellow thigh bone split as if to extract marrow fat. Bones leach out of the clay after heavy rain, and attendants collect them, wash them and place them reverently in glass cases. At one point we're brought up short by a piercing whistle, then rousing martial music plays deafeningly from loudspeakers, as it did to mask the inmates' screams from reaching nearby villages. The baby-killing tree, where infants were seized by their ankles and bashed to death, has not been chopped down but stands as a cenotaph.

broken children buried in bark red bracelets holding prayers

Piles of sandals line the steps to the stupa. Buddha wrote about the steps to Heaven. Not here. Skulls in layers, 8,000 sorted by age, gender and type of injury, crowd each level behind the stupa's glass. Beside some pierced or shattered brain-cases are implements used to kill, not military weapons but the crude tools of a peasant farmer: a hoe, a mattock, a length of pipe, a fence spike. Their shapes in the skulls.

outside the museum a legless man selling books of those who fled


Author's Note: Choeung Ek is the most well-known of tens of thousands of mass grave sites, known as the Killing Fields, from the genocide that took the lives of more than a million people in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The site is 15 kilometres from the capital, Phnom Penh.

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