Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 11, 2009

Signs of Death

   After speaking at Phnom Penh Prison on Monday, we carved out some time to visit Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, located south of Phnom Penh. This bloody piece of real estate served as the extermination camp for Security Office 21 — the high school turned into a torture campus by the Khmer Rouge. Those who had already been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported by trucks to this killing field. Deceived into thinking that they were being transported to new quarters, these unfortunate souls were blind-folded and made to kneel in front of one of the 129 mass graves at the site. Then, they were bludgeoned and thrown into the pit where Pol Pot’s soldiers cut their throats.

Cheoung Ek Skulls   Although Choeung Ek is now a peaceful and quiet place, the signs of death are everywhere. After all, almost 20,000 people were executed at this site. The most prominent building at the site is the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988. More than 8,000 human skulls are arranged behind the glass panels of the building. Many of the skulls bear the visible marks of blunt-force trauma. These are the skulls of men, women, and children who knew nothing but pain and fear in their finals days. What crimes had they committed? The Khmer Rouge needed little excuse to kill. My friend Barnabas told us that one of his sisters was killed because she had kept a few sweet potatoes she had grown in her own back yard. Another sister was killed because she showed too much emotion when she sought permission to visit family members in another town. I can only imagine what senseless reasons resulted in the deaths of those buried in Choeung Ek’s communal graves.

Cheoung Ek Grave 7   Three signs in particular caught my attention at Choeung Ek. The first sign marked mass grave number 7 and said, “Mass Grave of 166 Victims without Heads.” These victims were among the 8,000 whose skulls were found separated from their bodies. I wonder about the individuals who were responsible for butchering these people and how they could possibly sleep at night and how they learned to live with what they had done to their own people. Unlike Hitler who killed the Jews, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed their own people. Barnabas related the account of one of these butchers who became a Christ-follower later in life. When asked what regrets he had about the killing fields he replied that he only had two. First, that he had killed so many. Second, that he did not know Jesus at the time. He said that he could not have possibly murdered others had he known and followed Jesus at the time of the killing fields.

   The second sign that caught my attention was positioned in front of a tree and read (exact text and spelling): “Magic Tree — The tree was used as a tool to hang loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” It’s interesting how sinful people always try to drown out the sound of their sin – or cover it up. Yet, no matter how loud the noise, it’s never loud enough to drown out the cries of the afflicted. The Bible reminds us that God hears the cries of the afflicted and will call their oppressors into account (Ps. 10:12-18). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Someone else said that the wheels of God’s justice may move slowly, but when they come they grind finely. No one commits atrocities like these with impunity.

Cheoung Ek Killing Tree   The third sign that caught my attention was the saddest of all. This sign was also posted in front of a tree. The sobering words written on the sign said: “Killing Tree Against Which Executioners Beat Children.” Ammunition was more precious to the Khmer Rouge than the lives of children. Pol Pot’s henchmen took small children from their mothers, swung them by their feet and smashed them against the killing tree, and then tossed their lifeless remains into the adjacent mass grave. The sign that marked that grave noted: “Mass Grave of More than 100 Victims | Children and Women Whose Majority Were Naked.” Throughout the world today, the unborn, children, and the weak are still being smashed against the killing trees.

   Among other things, S-21 and the Choeung Ek killing field remind us that what we believe matters. Pol Pot’s worldview devalued human life and two-million people died as a result. Christ-followers and the church must not take a neutral or passive stand on matters of injustice. We must take sides. We must side with life against death and with justice against oppression. We cannot just say we are passionate about matters of injustice and do nothing. Passion must lead to action on behalf of the weak and oppressed. Anything less is a betrayal of our Christian worldview.


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