Newsreal: Ghosts eternal

"The Khmer Rouge is no more," said the one Western eyewitness to the show trial of its genocidal leader, Pol Pot. But if the guerrillas' threat has receded, what they did during Cambodia's "Punishment Time" may never be erased.

By Andrew Lam
Published August 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in the summer of 1992, while staying at a friend's home outside the town of Siem Reap, I woke in the middle of the night and saw fire outside my window -- to be more accurate, several balls of fire moving in a slow dance at a distance. For half a minute, I stood transfixed, watching those balls of light flutter and flirt with each other before they abruptly disappeared.

To this day I do not know what I saw, though I reasoned they were torches carried by very fast runners. When I talked about the fire to soldiers, servants, housewives and even politicians, however, many simply nodded their heads knowingly and said, "ghosts."

"So many ghosts here, you know," one woman remarked in a matter-of-fact way, "their souls have not gone to heaven. They are still very angry."

It is risky for a journalist to talk about ghosts -- it has taken me almost five years to tell this story. But ghosts and spirits and myths provide a crucial window to the Cambodian psyche, especially as it seeks to fathom the cause of the country's immense suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during what one woman called "Cambodia's Punishment Time."

From notebooks I wrote while traveling the Cambodian countryside:

  • An old woman named Srong said this about the Khmer Rouge. "The old monks used to say, 'One day there will be a war where the demons come and blood will rise to the elephant's stomach,' and it came true." Srong is blind. Her face is strangely serene as she explains how she had witnessed the Khmer Rouge murdering her own children and then found she could no longer see.

  • A man named Hott Nguong explained it this way. "The Khmer Rouge soldiers are possessed by demons who came from hell. They have no souls. You can tell by looking in their eyes. If you are a human being, how can you torture children to death?"

  • Bonn Srey, a woman who cannot read or write, explains Cambodia's tragedy by saying the country is cursed. "A long time ago, the Cambodian king was powerful and cruel to neighboring countries and those people curse Cambodia. Now Cambodia is full of demons and ghosts."

Maybe this is just normal superstition in a country where nine out of 10 people live in the countryside, without electricity, and where seven out of 10 are essentially illiterate. Yet intellectuals are not immune. Reasay Poch, a Cambodian-American with a graduate degree in Asian Studies from Cornell, was doing research at Tuol Sleng, the infamous Khmer Rouge prison where some 20,000 people were incarcerated, tortured, then systematically killed. Poch was working on the second floor of the building, reading and photocopying written confessions left behind by Khmer Rouge victims, when he heard screaming and the sound of clanking metal. He rushed out to the balcony overlooking the torture chambers on the first floor, but saw nothing. "I had to tell myself, even if there were ghosts, they wouldn't harm me," he said. "After all, I am here to help tell their stories."

The past -- both the mythic and the immediate -- has a strong grip on Cambodian life. One sees it in contemporary Cambodian politics. All warring factions during the early 1990s had the image of the ancient capital, Angkor Wat, imprinted on their flags. Paintings of these stone ruins hang on the walls of every government office, every restaurant and every classroom. They are a testament to an ancient empire that once stretched westward across Thailand to Burma and eastward to include much of the Mekong Delta and South Vietnam. "Bangkok" and "Saigon" are both Cambodian words.

It was an empire that understood intimately the power of war and destruction. Cambodia was once a Hindu nation that worshiped Shiva, the Destroyer God. When he danced, it is said, he set in motion both the creative and destructive forces in the world.

Those who know the story say Shiva remains a potent and angry God. One Cambodian guide at Angkor Wat explained, "We failed to worship Shiva and he punished us by sending his Monkey Army" -- the Khmer Rouge. "Shiva promised to protect those who worshiped him and destroy all unbelievers. And we were punished because we failed to worship him."

Shiva's four faces with their eerie half smiles can be seen all over the stone ruins. Each represents a different aspect: Creation, Preservation, Incarnation, Destruction. As I write, I can still see in my mind's eye those stone faces, smiling their mysterious smiles.

And I think of Kall Kann, a doe-eyed teenager who stared at the stone faces, trying to decipher the past: "The stone faces belong to a king, maybe a God, but it's too long ago," he said. "I don't remember the name. My father knows the name for sure but, you know, my father is dead."
Aug. 8, 1997

) Pacific News Service

rollerbladers r e s p o n d

Editor's note:A Newsreal commentary by Scott Baldinger on "irksome" rollerbladers in Manhattan ("Rollerblader rage: They're sleek, they're shiny, they're |ber-pedestrians and they must be stopped"), which ran in Wednesday's Newsreal, did not go down well with some Salon readers who are also rollerbladers. Here are some of their responses:

Just read the "death to rollerbladers" piece. While I am the first to admit that there are many fellow rollerbladers that are disrespectful to others with whom they share public spaces and that sometimes risk their own safety and that of others, I found the above mentioned piece quite insulting.

Obviously its writer has never experienced the magic of a skate along the Charles River in Boston. I commute on my rollerblades, leaving traffic jams behind me in rush hour and leaving my car at home as well -- thus in a small way not adding to the parking nightmares in this city. I yield to pedestrians, wait at crosswalks and still manage to get to work totally invigorated by an early morning skate through my beautiful city.

It is awful to think that there are people out there who enjoy seeing a skater getting hurt. Usually I only get good vibes from people I meet while on my skates. How disappointing to read an article such as "death to rollerbladers" in my favorite online magazine. To imply that all skaters are selfish, inconsiderate and foolhardy is to contribute to the creation of a new and unfair stereotype.

Paula Aguilera

I beat my old record around Mission Bay (in San Francisco) and felt so inspired by Scott Baldinger's piece I did it without elbow pads. So all streetbladers are rude, aggressive and abusive? Gee, that's how most people describe New Yorkers. Could it be Mr. Baldinger was engaging in a little generalization and stereotyping, hmm? I agree that some streetbladers could use a few lessons in manners, but I put that down to the average age. And after being trapped in the pedantically conformist mediocrity of San Diego, I'd cheerfully accept a few sore toes to experience some cultural diversity. Tell Scott to stop whining about trivia, focus on the big stuff and enjoy the hell out of the beauty of New York life.

Oh, and I'll give him a blading lesson any time he wants.

Carolyn Cooper

It's pretty obnoxious that Scott Baldinger gets revenge by enjoying seeing rollerbladers fall. Because in fact, falling is a dangerous and painful experience when skating.

I get to blade on Venice Beach every day, far from Scott Baldinger. Pedestrians are the menace here. The typical pedestrian on the bike path seems to be a cross-blend of the Beverly Hillbillies/Gomer Pyle/Mr. Heaney. They trip you, they walk suddenly and blindly in front of bikes and bladers.

I was tripped by a pedestrian a few months back. He was standing holding a child in the middle of the bike path talking to someone else. As I was passing him, he turned blindly and stuck his foot out. I had no time to avoid him or his foot. If he wasn't holding a child I would have just hit him straight on and let him cushion the fall for me, but I didn't think -- in the split instant -- the baby deserved to suffer for his lack of awareness of the world around him. So I wound up rolling over and over on the pavement. As I lay on the ground writhing in agony, his wife offered me a baby-wipe and an L.A. cop told me that skaters didn't belong on the bike path, which is a big joke because skaters easily outnumber bikers at any time of day, every day on the bike path.

I have another scar on my legs, but I otherwise

Blading is a nice, healthy and fun way to get around. It's better for everyone's health than putting another car on the streets. Here in Venice, Calif., the Wells Fargo will let you in on skates (but BofA does not), as will the Bean Queen and most other local businesses.

Re: bladers, Scott should really join 'em instead of trying to beat 'em, or getting some perverse and gross enjoyment out of hoping we fall. Hope to see you on blades soon!

Andrew Lam

Andrew Lam is an associate editor of Pacific News Service.

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