I WATCHED THE BOY MOVE. Thin, dark, in tattered pants and flip-flops, he walked slowly along the river’s steep embankment. He carried a wooden spear, his eyes hunting the small black birds that flitted from crevices in the cement.
It was dusk on my first day in Phnom Penh, exercise hour along the gleaming new riverside. Men in running shoes swung their arms in circles; couples played badminton; elderly women in sun visors lifted their arms in unison, mimicking the aerobic instructor’s movements. Behind them the orange sky struck the Royal Palace into silhouette. Its decorative roofing rose from the spires like snakes, or the twist of incense smoke. Around me, people smiled.
It didn’t feel like a city that had been deserted.
That’s all I’d been able to think that first day, walking through streets exploded with the yellows and purples of flowering trees. I tried to imagine it the way the parents of my childhood best friend had left it, as the Khmer Rouge marched into the city and evacuated its two million residents: burned-out carcasses of cars, buildings crumbled, rubbish strewn across empty streets. I couldn’t.
I sat drinking a papaya shake when I spied the boy along the embankment. I watched as he approached a bird. A swift stab, a flurry of wings. He brought the stick towards his face, plucked the creature from its spear. He pressed his thumb against its throat and pushed in slow, hard strokes.
He placed the small black body in his pocket—a ragged strip of cloth—and continued walking, repeating, repeating.
It wasn’t so much the action of it that unsettled me; it was the slowness with which he did it—the calm.
He continued along the steep slope beneath the riverside’s bustle, stabbing and gathering.
“It took four people to die for me to be born.”
My best friend Lynn and I were sitting on her bedroom floor, in a little yellow house that flinched every time the bus passed. We were nine years old, coloring and eating crushed ice, sun-sleepy from another day spent at the public swimming pool down the block.
Lynn’s comment came out of nowhere. She counted them out. First, on her index finger, her mother Lu’s first husband had to die. Then, bending back two fingers at once, Lu’s children, the two that came before Lynn and her brother Sam—they had to die too. On her pinkie, her father Seng’s daughter.
Another daughter had already died, before the war. Sometimes that other daughter had died because of suicide, because Seng hadn’t allowed her to marry the man she’d loved. Other times, that daughter had died because the man Seng had been tricked into allowing her to marry had killed her. I don’t remember which it was that day, just that neither that daughter nor Seng’s first wife got a finger.
Those were the conditions that created Lynn. If those half-brothers and -sisters and a former husband hadn’t died, her parents wouldn’t have been arranged to be married. They wouldn’t have walked across Cambodia to escape; Seng wouldn’t have dragged Lu, pregnant, through a waist-deep river in the middle of a monsoon; Lynn’s brother Sam wouldn’t have been born in a Thai refugee camp and Lynn later in a farmhouse without heat in northern New York, where the people who’d sponsored their family forced them to live and work until they escaped to Oakland, California.
It was a simple statement, as concrete and non-debatable as the date of one’s birth. We’d done a family tree project that year in school; I remember looking over at Lynn’s. After two sturdy branches of “Lu” and “Seng” the tree turned to thin, wispy branches, then nothing. She’d finished the assignment early and stared off, looking bored.
I counted them with Lynn, looked down at my fingers. “Four people,” I repeated. There wasn’t anything else to say, so we went back to coloring.
Lynn’s room had two doors, one to the living room and one to the hallway. We’d always shut them both. We’d lock them sometimes too – it felt safer that way.
“So everyone you see here,” Cindy looked out of the tuk-tuk onto the bustle of the dusty road, “that’s over the age of 35 lived through the war?”
“God. It’s hard to imagine. Every single person…” She trailed off.
Cindy and I were traveling out of the city center. The pavement gave way to dirt, sidewalks to mud puddles, as we made our way closer to the Killing Fields.
I’d just met Cindy. She was a fellow travel blogger, passing through Phnom Penh on her way to Siem Reap. Thanks to Twitter and instant messaging, we’d arranged to meet up and spend an afternoon together.
I could relate to her observation: my first few days in the city, all I’d been able to think about was the war. I’d come to Cambodia looking for answers. I wanted to understand the war, the Khmer Rouge, what had never been talked about openly in Lynn’s family. I sensed it was a kind of key, that it was the beginning to a story I’d walked in on half-way: that Lynn and her brother Sam, and perhaps an entire generation had walked in on half-way too.
Our tuk-tuk rattled along the unsteady pavement, taking us closer to the mass-grave execution site that is one of Phnom Penh’s two main tourist attractions. The other is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former S-21 torture prison under the Khmer Rouge. All the travel agencies along the riverside advertise for tours of the two, sometimes combined with a trip to a shooting range where travelers can fire AK-47s left over from the war (ammunition costs not included).
Most travelers stayed in Phnom Penh only long enough to see S-21 and the Killing Fields, then scattered from the city. It was what Cindy was doing, and what I, if I hadn’t come for my particular project, would have done as well. I’d been putting off visiting the Killing Fields, not wanting, I’d rationalized, to spend the $12 tuk-tuk fare venturing out solo. Cindy offered an opportunity to split the cost—but more than that, she offered a buffer, a companion.
The wind grew stronger without buildings to block it, and I blinked bits of dust and debris from my contact lenses. By the time we pulled into the dirt lot in front of the Killing Fields, stinging tears blurred my vision.
“This happens every day here,” I laughed, and dabbed my eyes.
The Killing Fields were set in a peaceful country landscape, with birds chirping and the echo of children singing from a nearby grammar school. Incense burned in front of the bone pagoda, where skulls were separated into tiers by age. We walked past ditches that had once been mass graves, trees that had once been used to bludgeon children. None of it seemed real.
A sign told us that when it rained bits of victims’ bones and scraps of their clothing still surfaced through the dirt, over thirty years later. As we walked, we kept seeing faded pieces of cloth, half exposed in the earth.
Groups of Westerners in cargo shorts and sun hats wandered through the lot with clasped hands and concerned expressions. I saw only two Cambodians, young monks with round faces, whose orange robes blazed against the brown earth.
After about an hour, we exited the front gates. Dark-skinned men leaned against their bikes, chatted in the shade, napped quietly in the back of their tuk-tuks as they waited for their fares to return. Many of them, I thought, looked over 35.
I remember laughing.
Not a funny laugh but an are-you-effing-kidding-me laugh. Beside me, my duffel bag sat still packed.
It was the end of my first semester at university, and I’d just returned from my grandmother’s funeral on the East Coast. I’d sat down on the fold-out bed and turned my cell phone on for the first time in five days, listened a string of messages, vague and urgent, from Lynn, Sam, other childhood friends: “Something happened,” “Can you call us?”
“What is it?” my dorm-mate asked.
“The parents of my childhood best friend died while I was gone,” I told her, staring at my phone. I closed my eyes as I said,
“Her dad shot her mom, then himself.”
“Oh my God,” was all Rose said.
I walked out of our room and roamed up and down the hall’s thin carpeting, a muffle of hip-hop and Nag Champa coming from behind the doors, shaking my head and half-laughing. Friends poked their heads out of their rooms and asked me what was wrong; I told them. I didn’t yet have the distance I’d develop in the following days.
“They died in a domestic violence dispute,” I’d say, which was softer, more detached. In the hall that night, I kept saying, “He shot her, he shot her,” and people backed away—unsure, I guess, of how to respond.
Finally, at the end of the hall, I stopped walking and stood still. I slid open the window and breathed the sharp December air. I looked out at the quiet bustle—students carrying books, standing around smoking in the dim light and fog. I realized I wasn’t surprised.
I was aware of a haze of memories: footsteps at night, insomniac murmurings from down the hallway. In the weeks to come, specific memories would return: bruises across Sam’s shins; how Seng would hit him there because it wouldn’t show; an image of Seng—pointing at something, screaming, a flash in his eyes and a glint off his silver tooth.
“My dad might be moving back to Cambodia,” I’d remembered Lynn leaning in, an excited whisper. “He could start his business again there. Like, maybe in six months.” I’d remember us sitting cross-legged on the bedroom floor; us laying on our bellies on the swimming pool deck; us standing amid the morning glories waiting for our turn on the monkey bars.
And I’d remember the hallway—the muffled sound of heavy things moving, coming from behind a locked door, when I’d gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. It had scared me, made me afraid to get up to pee—afraid of that narrow hallway with its mirror at the end.
“I just didn’t think it was that bad,” we’d all say, in the days and weeks to come. But even then, no one would say what it was that had made us think it was bad to begin with. Had we all observed little things—bruises and passing comments—that we’d dismissed, not talked about, convinced ourselves we’d made up and eventually forgotten?
I didn’t remember any of it that night, the night I got the news—when I pressed my head against the mesh screen on the third floor of dorms, stared out of the window and tried to breathe. All there was that night was a vague sense, like the uneasy feeling you wake up from a dream with, and the words I kept repeating: “He shot her, he shot her.”
“What do you think of how the Khmer Rouge is taught to the next generation?”
The question came in a French accent. A standing-room only crowd had come out to the German-run Meta House cultural center for the screening of Enemies of the People—“the best documentary to be made about the Khmer Rouge,” Meta House’s director had assured us, “because it is the only one to be made by a Cambodian.”
I’d counted five Khmer faces in the crowd, none of whom had stayed for the Q&A session with Cambodian director Thet Sambath.
Sambath paused after the question, smiled that bashful Cambodian smile. “This I don’t know so much about,” he carefully evaded. “I know for many years, Khmer Rouge history was not taught in the schools.”
The audience was nodding. With nearly three-quarters of the population born post-war—the so-called “new generation”—formal curricula about war history was conspicuously missing from the schools for 30 years. “In the beginning, it was still very sensitive,” a young Cambodian had explained to me. “How do you talk about it—especially with Khmer Rouge still in the country, in the government?” Over the years, that initial avoidance of the subject had deepened into a de facto silence. Young people were left to piece together what they learned from their parents, which often wasn’t much.
A massive disconnect formed. Many of the new generation began to doubt the Khmer Rouge even happened. They suspected that their parents were exaggerating.
“How could Khmer people kill other Khmer people like that?” challenged a teenager interviewed in a documentary I’d watched. His mother sat behind him, looking away.
I was shocked. These were young people living in Cambodia, amid the physical and psychological evidence: mass graves and landmines, massive PTSD rates and their own absent family members.
“It’s time for Cambodia to dig a hole and bury the past,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former low-ranking Khmer Rouge, famously stated. Westerners use this quote often to exemplify the culture of silence that has grown up around the war in Cambodia. Hilary Clinton cited it after a 2010 visit, when she urged the country to continue with the Khmer Rouge trials, because “a country that is able to confront its past is a country that can overcome it.”
I’d read Clinton’s statement and nodded, thinking of my own attempts to understand the things I had been through.
“But, since in 2009,” Sambath continued his careful answer, “there is now a textbook for high schools just on the Khmer Rouge. This is very good.” He paused again. “But I think this is not enough.”
I thought of the entire section at Monument Books, the high-end, air-conditioned expat bookstore, dedicated to Khmer Rouge histories and memoirs. I thought: No, it’s not enough.
I was walking out of the market, poised to dodge motorbikes with arms full of bananas and plastic bags of fish amok, when the smell struck me.
A particular kind of incense, thick and ancient-smelling, wafts from the wats and street-side altars in Phnom Penh. Obscured behind the jumble of market umbrellas, I’d forgotten that I was right beside the massive Wat Ounalom. I stopped, blinked my eyes as the memory billowed back.
Lynn’s parents’ funeral was held in East Oakland, a faded funeral home with two stray bullet holes in the street-facing window. I went through the ceremony in a daze, coming away with only a handful of images: Lynn smiling, greeting us casually in the entryway as though we’d come over for dinner; Sam crying at the podium as he read lyrics of an R-Kelly song.
Old Cambodian women, hunched in their thin Chinatown blouses, rocked slightly and muttered to each other in the pews. Young Cambodian-Americans in baseball caps and baggy jeans talked on cell phones in the back, and kept reaching into deep pockets as if to dig for items they never pulled out. A mix of Americans, parents from other families we’d grown up with, filled the rest of the seats. “Well, I just loved Lu so much,” Mrs. Reed had said. “She was a real nice lady.”
No one mentioned Seng.
The ceremony was both Buddhist and Christian. For the Christian component, an open casket had been elected. We filed past to pay our respects, and I winced at the sight of Lu; beneath the framed photograph, her reconstructed face looked like silly puddy, a wax figure, a melted doll head.
I walked past Seng without looking.
After that came what I supposed was the Buddhist component. The caskets were closed and wheeled out of the room. We followed in a crowd, confused behind the cluster of older Cambodians murmering, raising incense sticks to their foreheads. Down a narrow hallway, a narrower doorway, to the crematory—the first casket, I didn’t know whose, was eased in to the machine. Lynn and Sam were made to push the button.
The smell began to filter out: embalming chemicals and burning body mixing with the musky incense. I blinked against the sting, lowered my head. I felt the smoke envelop me. When they went to cremate the second casket, I looked over at my mom and whispered, “I have to go.”
The smell stayed on our clothes and skin; we carried it in the car, back into our house where people gathered to mourn and eat casserole. We balled up our funeral clothes and put them in plastic bags, to be taken to the cleaners. But the smell stayed with me, in my nose and hair for days.
I stepped out of late-afternoon traffic as the incense wrapped around me. The smell was leaner in Phnom Penh, mixed with the sting of exhaust and urine instead of burning flesh and formaldehyde. But it still made me queasy, made my eyes water a bit.
After a few moments, it wafted away.
My favorite café in Phnom Penh was around the corner from my apartment. It wasn’t much—just a stall on a quiet backstreet, tables and chairs poured out from a double wooden door that at night was padlocked shut.
The café was shady from an overgrowth of potted plants, an awning that stretched out to the street; sometimes you’d catch rats scurrying around the debris. It was cool there, though, and if I sat long enough, I’d stop sweating. It faced the backend of Raffles, the French-colonial five-star hotel, where the employees parked their motorbikes. The chairs and tables were almost always full—TV buzzing and men playing checkers—and it took me a few visits to realize that most of the customers were the hotel employees, security guards and bellboys, hanging out before or after their shifts, I supposed.
The woman who ran the café had a broad, flat face and a chipped tooth. She walked with a limp that seemed to radiate from her hip, as though it had rusted in place. She moved in slow, labored steps around the small stall, clearing empty cups and refilling teapots, bringing me iced coffee the way I liked it—black.
After awhile, I didn’t have to ask anymore; she’d smile that one chipped tooth at me, wave for me to sit—she’d disappear into the mouth of those wooden doors and come back out with black liquid in a cup filled with the crushed ice I’d sometimes watch her busting apart with a mallet from the block it was delivered in. She’d set the cup in front of me and didn’t seem to mind when I’d linger for an hour or more, refilling the melting-ice cup with weak green tea and smoking cigarettes that always seemed to burn too fast.
I was reading Survival in the Killing Fields, a door-stopper of a memoir by Dith Pran, who had starred in the film The Killing Fields and was a Khmer Rouge survivor himself. (“Did you see The Killing Fields?” Lu had asked my mother once. “Yes.” Lu had paused, nodded: “It was much worse.”)
When I finished that book, I’d come with others, from the used bookstore I liked—always something on the war. I was studying. But sometimes I’d look up from the pages and just stare, at the men sitting, at the variety show on the television, at the woman as she leaned her elbows on the counter and made passing comments to her customers. I wondered what she was saying.
I was about to cry.
I talked myself down. Breathe. You are NOT going to lose it on the back of this dude’s motorbike.
We were lost. It happens a lot in Phnom Penh, where streets are known by both numbers and names, and where building numbers hop-scotch around in no discernible order. We’d been driving up and down Street 271 for forty minutes, looking for an NGO I had an appointment with.
They were the only NGO that had responded to my inquiry email about an informational interview, but the one I most wanted to meet with. PADV was the only agency dealing solely with domestic violence in Cambodia, and I hoped to learn from them information that would place what I had seen in Lynn’s family in a larger context.
But I’d woken up that morning with a knot in my stomach. I was tense, edgy, irritated.
And now I’d missed the appointment. And I had to admit that part of me was relieved. But another part of me—or maybe the same part—was becoming hysterical.
I’d ended up at a dress shop, the address corresponding to the one I’d been given. I smiled helplessly at the woman who ran the shop—her pajama suit contrasted by a display case of sequined satin—and asked the motorbike driver to take me back. I didn’t bother to instruct him when he stopped three times for directions, didn’t bother to flinch each time we nearly collided with another bike. In front of my building, before we could barter for a price, I handed him about twice what the ride was worth, kept my eyes lowered as I mumbled thank-you and hurried up the stairs.
I twisted the key in the padlock, shoved the big metal doors open—turned on the fan, sat in the one metal chair and broke down and cried.
I could talk about the Khmer Rouge. Sure, I’d known people who’d survived that, I’d felt the impact of it, albeit second- or even third-hand. It was difficult, painful even, but it was removed enough from me that I could discuss it.
But this, I realized, was still too much talk about. Not in any real way. I had a hard enough time even remembering the facts of it, exactly what I had seen or heard. And when I tried to write about it, all that came out were abstractions, obtuse and grandiose language, as though I were using metaphors to distance myself, to not really write about it.
Ten years, I thought. Ten years and it’s still this painful.
And this tragedy was small, compared to the Khmer Rouge.
Silvio clutched a can of Angkor beer with dust-stained hands. He’d arrived in Phnom Penh that morning, on a motorbike with another Italian friend. Their backpacks and film equipment sat in a dirty pile in my friend Tim’s flat, where people had gathered for dinner.
Silvio and his friend were making a documentary, they told me, on Indochina. They were in Phnom Penh for three days and wanted to interview people about the Khmer Rouge. Did I have any contacts?
“Well,” I began slowly. “Not really.”
“But you were researching this topic, no?”
“Yeah, but as an outsider,” I glanced around our table of Westerners, Styrofoam boxes of take-out and cigarette smoke. “It’s hard to have access, you know?”
I’d been in Phnom Penh six weeks. I’d learned a lot about Khmer Rouge history—read histories and memoirs, researched the state of mental health and trauma services in Cambodia, attended documentary screenings, become a regular fixture at Bophana, an audiovisual historical archive center. But, I had to admit to Silvio, that was as far as I’d gotten. I’d only sat down face-to-face with a handful of people, and even then only discussed subjects tangentially connected to the war history.
“It’s a lot to ask,” I told Silvio, “for people to talk about it, open up.” I was vaguely aware that I was talking mostly to myself.
“Yes, but it wasn’t so long ago. There are still many people that lived through it, I think it shouldn’t be so hard to find a person who wants to talk.”
I nodded slowly. I tried to explain how people didn’t really talk about the war. Sure, it was referenced a lot, was always kind of there, but there wasn’t any open discourse, any real or meaningful discussion.
I paused. I realized I could have been describing Lynn’s family or her parents’ death, Pol Pot or her father Seng. I could have been describing myself.
“Yes, but they should,” conviction flashes through Silvio’s dark brown eyes. “This is how you move forward. It’s not good to keep quiet.”
I know that, I felt like telling him. We know that.
“Yeah, but it takes time,” I told him instead.
He gave a nod, the kind that could mean anything at all, and lifted the can to his arched Roman lips. I watched the smoke twist from his cigarette; it looked, I thought, like incense.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador. To read about the editorial process behind this story, check out The Oldest Trick in the Book.]