Sunday, June 21, 2009
Face to face with Cambodia's past
The Cambodian national torment is the Khmer Rouge era. In 1979 when survivors were arriving in Thailand the horrific stories they brought with them sounded unimaginable, yet true. Today, thirty years later I had the opportunity to see the places where genocide happened. One place just 15 km outside of Phnom Penh, is Choeng Ek, one of the "killing fields." Numerous mass graves have been uncovered, leaving a pock-marked landscape where victims were bludgeoned to death in order to save bullets.
People come and walk silently along the dirt paths that rim the craters. In some areas, remnants of clothing and shards of bone are visible. A monument in the center of the complex has a ten-layer repository of skulls. It is a somber, sad place.
A second is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the center of Phnom Penh. Known during the Khmer Rouge regime as S-21, the former high school was converted to a torture and execution center for anyone thought to be in opposition to the mandates of Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1979, 10,519 people were brought from throughout Cambodia, held for several months, tortured in a myriad of despicable ways, then executed. Only two survived, one a photographer who made haunting mug shots of every inmate and an artist who promised he could portray Pol Pot in a favorable manner but also painted depictions of the torture methods.
A steady stream of people move quietly through the halls and into the rooms full of hundreds of the photographic portraits and paintings. Many are Cambodians coming with their families. They stare at the photos, reach out to touch. I'm reminded of of the respect and reverence that visitors to the Viet Nam Memorial show. S-21 is Cambodia's "Wall."
In another section of the complex rooms with stark steel bed frames and shackles that bound the prisoners remind the visitors that cruelty and crudity are inseparable. Two floors of another building are full of small cubicles constructed from brick and mortar or wood where prisoners were crammed into the spaces to await their fate.
This was a necessary tour for me, not pleasant yet as haunting and memorable as anywhere I have ever been.