Dissident husbands, soporific spells, fingerprint-smeared walls, ghoulish latticework, Apsara dancing, drab cafeterias, killing fields, anesthetic beauty & well-founded fears of persecution.
In thirty years of off-and-on legal practice, I handled about a dozen political asylum cases—not many, but enough for me to acquire a protective layer of emotional detachment. I learned how to stand back, how to take in the stories without blinking at the gruesome details, how to keep my face an emotionless mask. Pre-pandemic social distancing, although occasionally a detail would break through.
One of my clients had been arrested after military police shot her dissident husband. She had somehow escaped prison in her small African country and found her way to Minnesota, where we were meeting in a cluttered legal-services conference room. My client spoke in the mechanical monotone typical of people who have survived trauma. I did not want to interrupt as she told her story: how the police stripped her naked, how they threw her with seventeed other women into a cell. How the cell where they kept all those women was about the size of the conference-room table. Startled, I looked up from my notes. “You mean the room?” I asked. “No,” she insisted, measuring with her hands, “the table.” I asked the interpreter; I made my client repeat it several times. She was certain. The cell where seventeen naked women were kept for days was the size of the table around which the three of us were seated.
That detail shocked me. Still, lawyers, like surgeons, can’t get too close. If we did, we’d never be able to cut our clients open, and our clients don’t open up easily. When it finally happens, I nudge the box of tissues closer, pat a hand, veil my face with a look of calm concern. I do not flinch as the story pours out. Instead, I press my client to keep talking. “Could you sit down in that tiny cell? Did the soldiers rape you? Where, out in the hallway?” Asking these questions is awful, but it is the only way I can help. Each fact enhances the client’s credibility and helps prove the “well-founded fear of persecution” that earns them the right to stay in the US.
So I’d make my clients tell me over and over again. If I found flaws or gaps or inconsistencies, I’d challenge them, so that when they faced the immigration officer, their stories would hold up. Building a case for political asylum has never been easy, even in the days before our government started caging children at the border. The gruesome details helped earn my clients the right to stay.
As always, it was the details that mattered: did you see them kill your parents?
It was not unusual for the client to break down, but I cried only once, and it wasn’t over a political asylum case. A group of volunteer attorneys had joined forces with leaders of the Twin Cities refugee community to stage a mock trial of Cambodia’s notorious Khmer Rouge. As part of the project, we spent hours interviewing local Cambodians. We were looking for survivors who’d be compelling and coherent witnesses.
I remember sitting in a sterile community lunchroom one Saturday, facing one Cambodian refugee after another across a hard metal table with a scratched Formica top. It was 1990, barely a decade after the invading Vietnamese army routed the Khmer Rouge and ended their four-year reign of terror. I’d been an attorney for less than a year but had already handled enough political asylum cases to know how to conduct the interviews. As always, it was the details that mattered: did you see them kill your parents? Did they beat you every time you fainted? Did anyone else in your family survive? These weren’t clients; there wasn’t time to go through the long process of establishing trust. I had just one opportunity to get every detail right.
Each interview took about thirty minutes, a refugee, the interpreter and me talking softly amid the muted hubbub of the drab cafeteria. Occasionally I’d look up from my yellow legal pad to glance at the scuffed linoleum floors and the sallow beige fingerprint-smeared walls. And then I saw my husband scanning the room.
“Excuse me for just a minute.”
I smiled at the interpreter and interviewee and walked over to Will, wondering what on earth he was doing here.
“Tracy, your mother just called. Your father died.”
I barely understood the words. My father was just fifty-eight. Nothing had been wrong with him. He’d been mowing the lawn, and then he came inside and collapsed. I made Will repeat it until I was sure.
In a panic, I rushed to another attorney to explain what had happened, that I had to leave right away to catch a plane home to Boston. She gasped, took my arm, told me that of course she’d finish the interview I’d been conducting. Her simple kindness was all it took. I started to cry. I somehow made it out to a hallway, where I sobbed and shook and gasped for air. My father’s early death was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, but I didn’t want people to see me carrying on; my tiny, mundane tragedy did not seem worth all these tears compared to the morning of stories I’d just heard. Will kept his arms around me, and eventually—hours, days, weeks later—I stopped crying. But the memory of that day kept hurting, like when you press on a bruise that has faded but not fully healed.
It’s been decades since I’ve worked with Cambodian refugees, but the story of Cambodia has stayed with me, linked always with that sad and strange day in the dreary cafeteria. A few years ago, as my sixtieth birthday was approaching, Will and I decided to go there. I wanted to see the temples at Angkor Wat. I wanted to see traditional Apsara dancing. And I wanted to see the prisons and the killing fields, the horrific places from which all those refugees had fled.
It is difficult to overstate the terror and insanity that engulfed Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge were radical Marxists and agrarian reformers; anti-urban, anti-intellectual ethnic purists; totalitarian, autocratic, murderous oppressors. During the few short years they controlled the country, more than a million Cambodians died, about a quarter of the population. They died from starvation, torture and, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of bodies uncovered in mass graves at places like the Choeung Ek killing fields, execution.
We visited Choeung Ek and Security Prison 21 on the last day of our three-week trip. One of the first things I learned was that the killing fields were actual fields. I’d not known if the term was a sort of metaphor, but it was not. The fields had once been fruit orchards. The Khmer Rouge turned them into an execution ground, and now they were a tourist attraction and memorial to the Cambodian holocaust, just twenty minutes from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. The drive there took us through an enormous open landfill area, which, our guide explained, was being developed by Chinese investors.
Or maybe Japanese investors. Our guide that day was an enthusiastic talker, but he spoke English with a heavy accent and a voice made gravelly by years of smoking, so he was hard to understand. Short, thickset and gruff, Mr. Chantheauy appeared to be about fifty years old, although it was hard to tell. I did some quick math. Unless I was way off about his age, he would have lived through the Khmer Rouge era. I wondered if his experience would come up.
The cell where seventeen naked women were kept for days was the size of the table around which the three of us were seated.
It did, in the first ten minutes of our car ride. Mr. C was twelve when the Khmer Rouge took over. He had been living with his family in Phnom Penh, making them immediately suspect as members of the urban, intellectual class. When the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, they sent Mr. C and some number of his brothers to work in the countryside. He starved, he almost died, he never saw his parents or the rest of his family again.
Will, I could tell with a sideways glance, was enthralled. He clutched the headrest of the seat in front of him, leaning forward, straining to understand. Mr. C kept turning back to look at us from the front seat of the small car he was driving. Will kept intoning “Wow” or “Really?” as Mr. C rattled off the atrocities he’d experienced. All the while, I nodded mechanically, imagining Mr. C telling his story to hundreds of other tourists, wishing he would keep his eyes on the road as he drove, wondering why my capacity for compassion had suddenly gone off-kilter. Was it because Mr. C’s story was like dozens I’d heard before? Or was it his disconcertingly direct eye contact and surprisingly aggressive storytelling style?
We arrived at the Choeung Ek killing fields.
“Wow, can you believe that?” Will asked, staring after Mr. C as he hurried off to buy our tickets. “He really lived through it.”
“Well, he’s the right age, so sure,” I replied. Will had never heard a first-person account anything like what Mr. C had just recited. He was looking stunned, and I did not want the fact that I was unimpressed to cheapen his moment. I did not doubt Mr. C’s basic veracity, nor was I cynical enough to think he told clients his story just to get bigger tips, although I imagined it didn’t hurt. Immediately appalled that such a thought would even occur to me, I reminded myself that repetition and the passage of time had doubtless made Mr. C’s pain was far less raw than that of the refugees I’d interviewed decades before.
Mr. C was motioning for us to join him at the entry gate. Sympathetic storyteller or not, he had survived the Khmer Rouge. He had every right to own his past.
At first glance, Choeung Ek looks like a well-shaded, somewhat overgrown park. From a distance, numbered signs and displays resemble stops on a guided nature trail, except instead of describing the plant life, these signs direct you to look down at the fragments of the victims’ bones and clothing and teeth protruding from the earth. The tag beneath a broad, leafy chankiri tree does not detail its botanical information. Instead, the label identifies it as the “children’s tree,” where Khmer Rouge soldiers held infants and toddlers by the feet and swung them so their heads would smash open against the trunk. The Khmer Rouge killed even the youngest children, Mr. C explained, so they would not grow up and seek vengeance for their parents’ murders.
The word didn’t pop into my mind right away, but what made the children’s tree horrific was the intimacy. It’s one thing to shoot someone from a distance or to shovel bodies en masse into a hole in the ground. Even a knife allows a bit of separation between murderer and victim. But to grab a small child or a baby by the ankles and stand just a foot or two away from a tree as you dash the baby’s head against it leaves no space. No space between you and your own inhumanity.
The focal point at Choeung Ek is not the children’s tree, however, but a two-hundred-foot-tall stupa filled with victims’ skulls. The building is a traditional Buddhist memorial structure, a somewhat sterile-looking white tower with an ornamented green and gold pagoda-style roof. The inside is stark, consisting primarily of multi-storied cabinets that hold more than five thousand skulls and other bones, remains of the murdered prisoners whose bodies had been left in the fields just outside.
The fields had once been fruit orchards. The Khmer Rouge turned them into an execution ground, and now they were a tourist attraction and memorial to the Cambodian holocaust, just twenty minutes from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.
Inside the stupa, rectangular glass-and-wood cabinetry towers toward the ceiling. The cabinets’ straight sides and right angles set off the rounded shapes of the skulls stacked neatly within. The skulls are grouped demographically by age and gender, positioned to stare out at the visitors. Gaping holes where the eyes and noses would have been temper the skulls’ dense solidity; the positive and negative spaces intertwine to create a ghoulish sort of latticework. There is a sense of balance and of patterning, more hypnotic than harrowing, a preternatural yin and yang rendered in shapes and shades of white, grey and black.
A stupa is supposed to be a place of meditation, and that is definitely the feeling the space inspires. One would not have thought it possible, that myriad tangible fragments salvaged after years of incalculable human cruelty could somehow form a work of art that emanates such abstract, anesthetic beauty.
And yet it does. In the stupa I stood close enough to see cracks in the skulls, doubtless made by soldiers beating their prisoners with clubs or sticks. But instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt serene. I kept thinking of the care that had gone into grouping and arranging the skulls, into labelling them so carefully—“Females, 20–40 Years,” “Juveniles” and “No Touch!”, although the skulls were all safely behind glass. That careful work, like the glass partition through which I peered so intently, somehow kept me far from the reality of genocide, even though I stood only inches from the grisly evidence.
And then it was time to go back to Phnom Penh. Mr. C gave us an hour to wander through a downtown market, then brought us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly Security Prison 21. S-21, as the prison was designated, was one of dozens of Khmer Rouge prisons, just as Choeung Ek had been one of numerous execution sites. It occupied a busy intersection right downtown.
As we entered the prison grounds it was not hard to imagine the serviceable, conveniently located space as the high school it had been before the Khmer Rouge took over. If you looked past the barbed wire that stretched all along the colonnades, you’d see squat cinderblock buildings, three stories tall, with rows of what once were classrooms opening onto a central courtyard. Inside, the linoleum floors and scuff-marked, off-yellow walls seemed not all that different from the community hall where I’d interviewed Cambodian refugees so many years ago.
He starved, he almost died, he never saw his parents or the rest of his family again.
None of the refugees I’d interviewed, however, could have been prisoners at S-21, because virtually none of S-21’s prisoners survived. If they did not die at the prison from torture, starvation or disease, they were taken to Choeung Ek for execution. Of an estimated twenty thousand prisoners, only twelve survived captivity: seven adults and five children.
Some of the torture equipment remains on display, along with written descriptions of what befell the prisoners, drawings to illustrate the various tortures, and gruesome photographs of emaciated, bloodied victims. The greatest part of the display space, however, was taken up with rows of black-and-white headshots, a visual record of each individual who entered S-21. Prison guards took the photos to prove that they were following orders and arresting enough people.
There were thousands of these grim three-by-four-inch portraits mounted in glass-enclosed cases, some freestanding, others attached directly to the walls. A labyrinth of blank, impassive faces arranged in orderly grids. Old men and old women. Children. Mothers holding babies. Walking through those former schoolrooms looking at those photos was like turning pages in a macabre yearbook of doom.
The multitude of photographs was staggering, a seemingly endless patchwork of black-and-white rectangles, carefully collected and arranged, that told a story of large-scale, systematic savagery. The sheer number of faces on display, however, eclipsed the individual suffering that lay behind each prisoner’s image, much as the painstaking presentation of skulls in the Choeung Ek stupa had transcended the violent death each skull represented.
I thought of the individual testimony we’d presented when we put the Khmer Rouge on “trial” back in that hearing room in the Minnesota State Capital—all those stories that our local survivors had told so bravely. We could have used these photographs as documentary evidence, I mused. Of course it wasn’t as if our panel of local luminaries, our pseudo International Court of Justice, had needed much convincing after they’d heard our witnesses’ stories. But in the real world we would have needed more proof.
The tag beneath a broad, leafy chankiri tree does not detail its botanical information. Instead, the label identifies it as the “children’s tree,” where Khmer Rouge soldiers held infants and toddlers by the feet and swung them so their heads would smash open against the trunk.
The mock trial was on the evening news and in the Sunday paper. We had turned pain and terror into an empowering community event. That our event was a triumph felt both heartening and disconcerting, just as there was an inherent discomfort in paying what was essentially a recreational visit to a former torture center. But that’s what happens. We record our history and build our memorials, and in so doing push away our pain and turn it into something else. If we didn’t, the pain would be too much to bear.
So there I was, plodding through S-21 as if in a walking coma, too numb to recognize the pain each photograph represented, too dazed to contemplate that each face staring blankly from the prison walls represented a person whose skull I had probably just seen inside the stupa.
I squinched my eyes and straightened my shoulders to break the soporific spell. I peered deep into one of the glass cases, trying to imagine the life behind each one of the faces, trying to imagine what their stories would have been. I scrutinized the images, one after another, row by row. I leaned in. And then I noticed.
Each prisoner wore a tag with a number, and for the most part the tags had been pinned to the prisoners’ shirts. But some of the prisoners wore tags pinned directly to their skin. At first I thought the quality of the photo was obscuring the image, but I kept looking. And I saw it again, in more than one picture. Numbers pinned not to the prisoner’s clothing, but to their actual body.
I imagined holding a safety pin in my hand, casually flipping it open. I imagined placing my fingers on someone’s bare shoulder or chest, feeling the bone beneath their skin, maybe the terrified pounding of their heart. I imagined how I’d use my thumb and forefinger to spread the skin and hold it taut, how I’d pierce the skin, first down and then up again, so the pin could emerge from their body and I could lock it into its clasp. I imagined how close I would have to stand, how hard I would have to bear down on the pin to make it enter and exit the skin, how I would be standing so close that if the prisoner screamed as I jabbed their flesh, they would scream directly into my ear. Even the Nazis who’d burned numbers into their prisoners’ arms, I imagined, would have used a tool that kept them farther away.
Gaping holes where the eyes and noses would have been temper the skulls’ dense solidity; the positive and negative spaces intertwine to create a ghoulish sort of latticework.
It was a small bit of brutality, not even worth a mention in all the text on the walls describing the various cruelties the prisoners experienced at S-21. But its insignificance made it all the more disturbing, which perhaps is why I could not walk away from those photographs, and why I imagined myself the perpetrator and not the victim.
It was unpleasant but easy enough to imagine having a safety pin jabbed through my chest. And I knew that with enough emotional and moral distance people can commit and survive the unspeakable. We distance ourselves from all manner of atrocity. It’s an attribute that can save us or turn us into monsters.
But what these photographs showed was different. Not grand-scale atrocity—just a cold and pitiless variation on a routine administrative procedure. I understood cruelty at a distance; I imagined pinning that tag onto a prisoner’s chest because I needed to understand what it felt like to be cruel from no distance at all.
I wanted to call Will back to look at the photographs with me, but it was time for us to meet Mr. C back out in the courtyard. The guides typically did not wander through the exhibits with the tourists. Now Mr. C was hurrying us along; the prison was our last stop for the day, and I assumed he was eager to get us back to the hotel and be done with work. But that wasn’t the reason.
“Come,” he motioned to the other side of the courtyard. “The survivors are here.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly. How could they be here; why would they be here? Mr. C had told us that only two of the adult survivors were still alive, now he was telling us they were actually here, along with one of the child survivors.
At first I thought it was a trick. A few years before, I’d gone to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, thousands of tomb figures on display at a massive excavation site in Xi’an, China. On the way out, my guide told me I was in luck. The “farmer,” the man who in the 1970s had been digging up his fields and happened upon the first bit of two-thousand-year-old statue poking up out of the earth, was here! On site! Today! And indeed there he was at the exit, a jovial man of about seventy, sitting behind a table, signing copies of a beautifully produced photographic catalogue available in several languages for about $25.
Walking through those former schoolrooms looking at those photos was like turning pages in a macabre yearbook of doom.
I rushed to buy my copy, marveling at my good fortune, but as I held out my book for the man’s signature, I began laughing. “You can take his picture,” my guide urged, extending her hand so she could hold my book while I took my photo. Obligingly, I held up my phone and clicked while the man smiled. They got me, I thought. The man, my guide and me: we were all in on the joke.
“That was really him?” I asked on our way out, my intonation rising with gentle skepticism. “He was the actual farmer with the plow?”
“Well, he was a member of the work team,” my guide backpedaled, suddenly absorbed in straightening the identification card hanging on a lanyard around her neck. Member of the work team or just a local man of around the right age—it didn’t matter. The book was lovely and the sales ploy was so charming that I didn’t care. I did Google “terra cotta warriors” and “farmer” when I got back home and found various photographs of men in their 70s, none of them the smiling man who had, I now presume, been hired to play the part on the day of my visit.
Mr. C led us to a large tree where a crowd of about thirty tourists stood in the shade, listening to a soft-spoken Cambodian man dressed simply in tan slacks and a short-sleeve plaid shirt.
“He’s one of the child survivors,” Mr. C whispered, nudging us gently to move forward. In the few hours we’d spent together, Mr. C had been informative but brusque, almost abrasive in his manner. Suddenly his tone was hushed, and as he took a few steps back I noticed he did not take his eyes off the speaker.
That our event was a triumph felt both heartening and disconcerting, just as there was an inherent discomfort in paying what was essentially a recreational visit to a former torture center.
Nor did I. I stared at his kind and ordinary face, wondering if I’d just seen his photograph on the walls inside the prison, not that I’d have been able to recognize him from a picture taken forty years ago. I was standing close and could see he had no scars, no obvious marks of his captivity decades before. He spoke in Khmer, but as close as I was, I could barely hear him; I had to strain to hear the interpreter at his side. His talk was almost finished. After a few minutes, he brought his palms together under his chin and bowed slightly in the traditional Cambodian manner of greeting.
“He says thank you,” the interpreter said. “Thank you for listening to his story.”
I hadn’t heard much of his story, but the details didn’t matter. I looked over at the books for sale at a small table set up behind where he stood and saw his face on the cover. It was really him. Norng Chan Phal, a child survivor, nodding at the small group of tourists who were brave enough to speak to him.
I was not brave enough. It was all welling up inside of me. That pressure in my chest, a shortness of breath, my eyes starting to blur. And I didn’t know why, because I’d met refugees before, I’d met Cambodian refugees before, I’d interviewed torture victims and people who’d seen their families murdered.
I turned around, and with moist eyes scanned frantically for Will, who had begun to wander off with the crowd.
“The book,” I said, motioning and pointing to the table, because I wasn’t sure Will could hear me. “I’ve got to buy his book.”
And Will nodded and sighed, raising his eyebrows and exhaling a small puff of air, which I knew meant, “Of course you do.” Our shelves at home are filled with books I’ve bought at lectures, CDs from concerts. Will couldn’t know that I wasn’t buying another souvenir, that this time it was more prayer than purchase.
I stared at his kind and ordinary face, wondering if I’d just seen his photograph on the walls inside the prison, not that I’d have been able to recognize him from a picture taken forty years ago.
The interpreter managed the transaction, but Norng was standing right there. I wanted to say something, but I was silent, in part because I didn’t trust my voice to form words, in part because there was no formula, no “Thank you for your service” to express the reverence and sadness and hope I felt standing just inches from this man who is so unexpectedly here, in this god-awful place, alive and, I desperately wanted to believe, living a life that included happiness.
I took the slim paperback and tried to smile meaningfully, not even knowing what I wanted to convey. Norng gazed back at me for the briefest of seconds, then I noticed Will and Mr. C waiting for me near the exit. I was shaking as I hurried to catch up.
“We have to go,” I managed to gasp. My heart was pounding so loudly I could barely hear my own words. “It’s too much.” I grabbed Will’s arm to steady myself as we walked. My sudden overblown reaction was ridiculous, I thought. It frightened me. I didn’t know why I was overcome.
“The other one is still here,” Mr. C said, gesturing urgently. We hurried to the exit, where the other survivor, who must have also given a talk, was wrapping up his book sale. In a daze I bought his book too; by the time I completed that second transaction and allowed Mr. C to steer us toward the parking area outside the prison complex, I began to relax. When there was enough distance between myself and the survivors, I turned to Mr. C.
“Why were the survivors here? Is today a special anniversary or something?” I asked. Why hadn’t he warned us? was what I was really asking. I had not expected survivors would be here on the day we chose to visit.
“Oh, no, they’re here almost every day,” Mr. C mumbled, dismissing my question with snort and reaching into his pocket for a cigarette. Back to his gruff, no-nonsense self. Will and I climbed into the backseat of the car and I opened Norng’s book, happy to see that he had signed the title page.
M r. C deposited us back at the hotel, where Will and I had just enough time to arrange a sunset cruise on the Mekong River. We raced to catch a tuk-tuk ride up to the pier. Soon we were sitting on the upper deck of a small tour boat, drinking our complimentary beer and eating our complimentary pineapple.
“You’re the only person I know who’d celebrate her birthday by visiting the killing fields,” Will laughed. We hadn’t planned it specifically, but that was how our itinerary had worked out. It was indeed my birthday.
I smiled back at Will. It was strange how I could not think about Cambodia without thinking about my father. How he’d died while I was conducting interviews a thousand miles away in a dreary Minnesota cafeteria, how that moment had shattered the careful emotional distance I’d been maintaining from the refugees whose stories I’d needed to record but not feel.
There was no exchange of words, no handshake, no blessing or confession or revelation.
Today we’d seen places I’d waited thirty years to see, and again I’d kept it all at a distance, inwardly rolling my eyes at Mr. C’s blunt stories, stumbling blankly through the monuments and displays. Until that instant when everything converged.
There was no artfully constructed memorial to interpret Norng Chan Phal’s presence at the prison, no narrative for me to redact and record on an immigration form. There was no exchange of words, no handshake, no blessing or confession or revelation. There was just a place where thousands had perished, and a moment standing face to face with one of the few who survived. Without distance. It was like focusing on the safety pin. Norng became a detail that I could see up close. As everything came together, I almost came apart.
That feeling lasted only a few minutes. Before long, I was eager to get on a boat and watch the sun set over the Mekong. I would not forget. I would never forget. But there was distance now, enough that I could enjoy the day as it came to a peaceful close. I could smile back at my husband and lean against the boat’s rail, watching the sky turn pink while everything else seemed far away.
Tracy Harris lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in Wraparound South, Midwestern Gothic, Lunch Ticket, the Tahoma Literary Review and Palaver, among others. She is a graduate of Hamline University’s MALS program and a former board member of Water~Stone Review. When she’s not writing, she volunteers as an English instructor and as an online crisis counselor. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Marcin Czerniawski