The Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) is the venue where leaders of the Khmer Rouge are tried for crimes against humanity and it has an outreach program that brings villagers from all over Cambodia to Phnom Penh to view the proceedings. A few weeks ago two buses turned up at the village where I live.
The trip had been organised by the head monk who had phoned the ECCC Public Affairs Section to request the daytrip. 80 assorted monks, old folks, teenagers and one Barang filled two coaches. The adults of the village were too busy planting rice or flooding new fields.
Roused from the repetition of their usual activities, the villagers chatted excitedly and poked their heads above their seats to catch the unusual sight of their friends and neighbours packed onto a tour bus.
I sat at the back and quickly regretted it as the first bumps of the dirt road hit the coach’s suspension and catapulted me a good two inches off my seat.
Being the biggest thing on the road, our bus drove fast and got us there quickly. I guess it was because it didn’t need to give way to the homicidal minivans and dust trucks.
On arrival in the big city, we poured off the bus stretching and congealing into friendship groups.
I attached myself to a pair of eighteen-year-old young women: Miss Tong and Rouwan, who could speak a little English. Miss Tong was one of the more attractive girls in the village – she had high cheekbones, a tiny nose and an impudent smile. She was often flanked by Rouwan – a closet lesbian struggling to keep her affection for Miss Tong platonic. Rouwan wore the type of sleeveless denim jacket stereotypically favoured by her those of her sexuality but with lace shoulder pads. The effect was like finding a biker chick playing with a Barbie. Anyway, the two girls and their friends could speak English well enough to have me hanging around them like an underprivileged giant.
We filed through the security gates into an area that looked like an internment camp. There were no refreshments to be found and I was soon about ready to suck a used coffee filter. There was one water tank and we sat at tables that had been screwed into the ground, penned in by chicken wire. All around us were grey buildings separated by anemic grass.
After fifteen minutes we were allowed into the windowless court building. It was 10am and the first proceedings were about to start. In the viewing gallery, we sat on cinema chairs and watched the show. The Khmer Rouge guy was visible in the middle of his defense team, withered and mad while his portly African lawyer started talking legal gibberish. This was countered by more gibberish from an Englishman who squawked and stood unruffled as proud parrot. The witness said he witnessed something in 1973. And then everyone was referred to ‘Document 2546/9-B’. The document was challenged by the parrot man. And the whole scene descended into more gibberish about whether 2546/9-B was not, in fact, a translation of 2546/9-A and whether or not it was admissible on a Wednesday with the following wind if the prosecution had eaten fish for supper.
We escaped 90 minutes later breathless with boredom.
The teens and I hatched an escape plan. Rouwan, Miss Tong and the rest of the gang found a nearby coffee shop that served the military police who dotted the area yawning over their rifles. The girls, half my size, led me there like fairies leading Bottom to a land flowing with condensed milk and caffeine.
We later returned to find the rest of the village eating the lunch provided by the courts. It was rice, pork gristle and some unidentifiable strips of a substance that could have been a vegetable or perhaps fried cow’s stomach. I was too hungry to care. I even finished Miss Tong’s pork.
Bored and regretting my decision to attend, we left the ECCC. Next stop – Toul Sleng: a place of despair where the screams of the dying have stained the place the colour of ash and mud. The Khmers coped with admirable stoicism. The young monks, freed from their punishing schedule of Pali-chanting and English lessons took the opportunity to have a laugh. A couple of them followed an enormously fat Westerner like curious puppies. They were filming him on their smart phones and giggling, watching the behemoth shake the ground with each footstep, grunting like a pig.
We boarded the coach. The old folks started spitting out of the windows as we waited for an orange handful of monks to finish their cigarettes. The coach roared into life. I was struck by a combination of post-weekend tiredness and the fatigue of being dragged around Phnom Penh with the village tour. I watched the countryside pass me by as I fell asleep, the villagers around me laughing at a Khmer comedy show playing on the bus TV.