Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cambodian Genocide

I woke up this morning in the Anise Hotel wishing I had asked for a second blanket. If there’s a trick to balancing the too-cold a/c with the hot humid weather of the Meekong, I haven’t found it. After a quick breakfast at the hotel café (fried rice and orange juice for me), my group boarded a small van and set off for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21.  S-21 was once a high school in Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge emptied the city when it was converted it into a detention and interrogation facility. Words like ‘atrocity’ and ‘cruelty’ that I had read about the Khmer genocide now seemed insufficient to describe what went on there. Former classrooms had been converted in cells or torture chambers. Some rooms displayed graphhic photos of the bodies that had been found when the prison was sacked, placed on the bed frames that still remain. Other rooms told the historic narrative; these displayed prison artifacts such as confessions victims had been forced to write, along with prison photos demonstrating how well organized and calculated the genocide was. Other rooms had torture devices while one had nothing more than blood stains that had never been removed.
I was crouched alone in this room, trying to photoograph the floor when a young man, who might have been Cambodian, entered. He reached the center of the floor before he noticed the blood; I saw his expression change as he realized what I was photographing. Our eyes met, filled with tears.

I was personally touched by this wall I photographed under a staircase because it was a place where visitors had voiced reactions to this place. I shared the pain I felt in their words, and the desperate cry for peace they conveyed. I was reminded of the Children’s Memorial that stands at ground zero in Hiroshima, Japan which reads: “This is our cry, this is our prayer: peace in the world.”

Upon leaving the museum my group met at a café accross the street, to rest and have some fruit smoothies. I ended up bargaining with 3 children who were peddling scarves, books and bracelets to tourists. One boy was a master in sales, betting a sale on besting me in 3 games of rock-paper-scissors, which he won. Later, he was kind enough to draw an original tattoo on my shoulder of the Monster energy drink logo. Upon leaving the café, a South African woman who lives in Cambodia working with an NGO took a moment to reprimand us for buying form the kids. She explained that if the kids make money it is incentive for the parents to keep them out of school selling their wares instead of studying. The alternate solution she offered, the "Friends" program, wouldn’t put food on this family’s plate tonight, however, nor would it keep the sun off my neck today. She was successful in making me second guess my purchase; I struggled to decide if the importance of education was a Western ideal that should not be foised upon someone with different cultural and economic values, or if education really is universally valuable and necessary to heal this community. 

Soon we were back on the road, this time heading toward Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, a.k.a. the Killing Fields. The fields were a vibrant green except for the small dirt paths that lead visitors among the mass graves, most of which had been partially excavated. These photos speak for themselves.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 Khmer people passed through this and other detention centers to be interrogated. Once forced confessions were recorded they were told they would be taken to work camps, but instead were taken to the killing fields where they were executed one by one, usually by being hit over the head and thrown into a mass grave. A 17 tiered tower in the middle of the Center houses the remains of thousands of victims of the genocide, 10 tiers of nothing but human skulls.  It was explained that in Khmer culture the resting place for the dead is significant, so although there is no way to identify the victims, it was important to find a way to enshrine them respectfully in hopes of offering their spirits rest.

I would like to write more about the politics of what happened here, but right now I just have to feel it. I can't believe what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

P.S.  Later that night, I ran into the same kid who had sold me the scarf. I asked him about school. He said he goes to school in the morning and sells in the afteroon. That made me feel a little better about buying  the scarf. 


Garin Cruz said...

Very powerful Andy!

JSK said...

Love the blog. A guy from Cambodia served in the YM Presidency with me years ago. He lived there as a kid, witnessing all of this. He was beaten. I had heard from others that he is scarred up and down his back. What an sobering experience for you to have.