This is an important but intense entry. Readers be warned.
From Oct. 15, 2009 (written in stages throughout the day)
I am at Tuol Sleng (Genocide) Museum in Phnom Penh. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge converted the school into a prison where they tortured and killed political enemies and their families. The Khmer Rouge documented their crimes with mug shots and photographs of emaciated victims. The photographs now line the rooms of the school-cum-prison-cum-museum. The city has done an incredible job with this minimalistic approach. A brochure and a few signs are adequate for background, and guides are available if desired; however, the way in which I have silently roamed the “classrooms” is, I believe, the most profound. The eyes of the victims captivated me. Especially the eyes of the women. They spoke more. Some simply asked “Why?”; some had given up hope; some were determined to stay strong; some said “I am going to kill every last one of you for what you’ve done. I’m going to turn the chisels and hammers you used to kill my husband and sons upon you.” Some eyes were wild—unreadable except for the one concept: “vengeance.”
I’ve been to Holocaust Museums, but never to a death camp. I’d never stood in the torture chamber. But I’ve done that today. Stood next to a metal cot on a broken tile floor—the same floor covered in blood in the photograph on the wall. The same cot with the dead prisoner chained to it in the past. Even the same hammer that spilled the blood is still on the cot. The body from the past is buried in the grave in front of me in the courtyard where I am writing this. I have seen no smiles in the mug shots nor on the living visitors of this place. But by the end of today, I’ll smile. Already forgetting the glazed over eyes screaming: “I’m going to kill you all.”
I intended to take no photographs, but in the end snapped one. A young male prisoner whose eyes spoke like mine do. If I had been in his place, my expression would have been the same. Cold and condemning but admitting the truth: “You got me.” The photo is even eerier because my lower body is superimposed over his face and torso in reflection. Our combination. My ghost instead of his.
I lost my driver out front—I’d walked by him at the entrance—and was hounded by tuk-tuk drivers wanting to capitalise on my plight. I am lucky to have control over my emotions because I would have loved to have yelled at them—to have told them to fuck off. The museum rattled my senses and I wanted to take it out on someone. Even the beggar out front with a burned face, missing ears, white eyes, and a cane. So horrid he defied pity.
After the museum, my driver took me to the site of the mass graves filled with the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields. A memorial stupa houses the clothing and bones of the excavated corpses. The pock-marked field reveals the locations of the graves into which the dead were piled—sometimes by the hundreds. Next to one grave was a beautiful old tree. Its sign read: “Killing Tree Against Which Executioners Beat Children.” “Beat,” meaning: “held babies by the ankles and smashed their heads open on the tree.” The Nazis did the same thing against walls.
I saw an information sign at the Killing Fields claiming that the atrocities committed there were worse than those in Auswitz by the Nazis. I don’t know why it’s a competition. Trying to earn pity? To find strength in rising from the coldest ashes?
Inside the information centre at the Killing Fields I read about a senior officer named Duch who took full responsibility for the actions of his subordinates who were only following orders when smashing children against the Killing Tree. He said this at his war crimes trial. No Nazis (as far as I am aware from what I’ve read of Nuremberg) did this. But Duch is wrong. They are to blame:
He’s the Universal Soldier
And he really is to blame
And his orders come from far away no more
They come from him and you and me
And brother can’t you see
This is not the way to put an end to war
(“Universal Soldier” – Buffy St. Marie)
Another named tree at the Killing Fields has a sign which read: “Magic Tree…the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed [sic]”.
I’m going to turn up the volume
Till I can’t even think
(“Playing Along” – Keane)
Peking duck for lunch. Dragons devouring Hydra handrails at the Royal Palace. Back at my hotel I smiled. But I haven’t forgotten those eyes…