Wednesday, Apr 02, 2008
I have written and re-written this entry so many times I can't count. I'm now going on 2 weeks trying to finish this. The reason it's been so difficult is that the subject matter is very emotional for me. Even though we only spent 3 weeks in the country, I fell in love with the Cambodian people. Their childlike innocence makes them genuine to a fault. It's as if the entire country slept through the 20th century and missed all of things that have jaded the rest of the world - epidemics, famine, war, genocides, homicidal dictators. For people who have been through so much, you would think they would be negative, pessimistic and hateful. Quite the contrary, they are just grateful to have the opportunity to now live in relative peace.
The country is really only a decade out of living under the fear of the Khmer Rouge. With that being said, they are still ruled by a corrupt, self-serving Communist government, which feigns democracy with multi-party "elections." I met one very well read and well spoken Cambodian who explained their current mentality. He said that the only hope for Cambodians is tourism. They do not manufacture anything, they do not grow anything and they do not mine anything. In short, they have nothing to support their flimsy economy except tourism. During the 1997 "election" the current ruling party threw grenades into the middle of a peaceful rally for the opposition party. My friend then put it together for me. Without a trace of self-pity in his voice, he said, "Tourism is our only hope and no tourist will come to a country where their government is blowing people up at political rallies. So rather than fight their corruption, we accept it. The alternative is poverty and starvation."
Without turning this into a complete diatribe, this conversation is indicative of Cambodia's culture. This is country who's recent history has been so horrific that they whole-heartedly accept, if not support a government that changes the winning majority from a 66% to 51% because they will lose the 2008 election otherwise. However, for Cambodians, government corruption is fine as long as they are not being tortured, starved or bombed.
So with all of that being said, our sight-seeing visit in Phnom Penh was intensely emotional. Next to living through 9/11, I can't think of a more gut-wrenching, white-knuckling, teeth-clenching experience. It was one of those experiences where you reach the end and realize that you haven't moved anything expect your eyeballs and feet for 3 hours. What we saw in their capital was the worst of the worst. And a lot of nasty stuff has happened to this country, so that's saying quite a bit.
Prior to 1975 Tuol Sleng was a local area high school, called Tuol Svay Prey. However, from 1975 to 1979, the classroom floors turned into the deathbeds for 17,000 Cambodians. During the Pol Pot years, the school was converted into an interrogation center for the ultra-paranoid revolutionaries of the Khmer Rouge. As if being dragged from their homes to work in rice paddy fields weren't enough, Cambodians lived in constant fear of being called a traitor to the revolution by one of the 16 year old Khmer Rouge guards.
The school is almost the same as it was when the Khmer Rouge were finally ousted by Vietnam in 1979. (Ironically, life vastly improved under Vietnamese rule, yet the entire world (U.S. included) supported the psychotic, murderous and genocidal Khmer Rouge because technically THEY had sovereignty. It is a mad, mad world, ain't it?) In each classroom, the numbers 1-50 painted on the walls count the number of detainees handcuffed to each other and laid out like sardines. In other classrooms hang enlarged photographs which depict the bloody, gaunt corpses of some of the Tuol Sleng victims. The center of the rooms contain the actual metal bed frames shown in the pictures on which those human beings were chained, tortured and starved.
In another building were head shots of the detainees. There were thousands of them. The looks on their faces ranged from complete confusion to shear and utter panic. Some of them were actually smiling and looking relieved, as if they were thankful because their hell on earth would soon be over. The ones that affected me the most were the faces of those who sneered at the camera in anger and defiance, as if to give one last "Fuck You!" to their captors.
As intense as the victim's head shots were, and as intense as the pictorials of the torture methods were, and as intense as the photos of the corpses were, non of these compared to Building C. Building C was where the majority of the 17,000 victims were held and tortured before being bludgeoned to death. (They typically beat people to death in order to save bullets.)
Outside of Building C barbed wire was strung across what were once open-air hallways looking onto the schoolyard. Apparently, the Khmer Rouge had problems with prisoners hurling themselves over the ledge to kill themselves in order to avoid further suffering.
Inside Building C the classrooms were transformed into crudely constructed prison cells. Two floors had brick cells and the third floor's were made of wood. Each cell was 5 feet long by 3 feet wide and still had the ankle shackles bolted to the floor. In order to patrol the detainees, they knocked out doorways through the classroom walls making one long hallway on each floor.
The most startling part about Building C, however, was not the makeshift prison. Not even close. The most startling part of Building C were the blood stains. In most of the cells were crimson splotches left by all those thousands of innocent Cambodians. Looking at the very blood spilled by these poor people made it feel as if it was happening before my eyes. It was not the the polished, roped-off, gift-wrapped tourism you're used to. It lent a reality to the moment that cannot be described.
To intensify this already paralyzing experience, it was the end of the day, and as I walked through the halls in Building C, there was no one else in sight. Tracy had wandered off and there were no sounds to be heard other than the setting sun. The energy in the room was tangible. It felt heavy. Like I was wading through water with ankle weights.
Between the quiet, the solitude, the energy and the blood stains, I swear I could hear screaming. Screaming from a mother listening to her teenage son being beaten to death. Shrieking from an old man who's cell door flung open for his final "re-education" lesson. Wailing from an eight-year old who didn't understand why these terrible men made her bleed. Listening closely, I could even hear the silent resignation of those who sneered in their head shots. The ones who did not make a peep in their final moments. Those who refused to give their torturers the satisfaction of hearing their pain.
The sad thing is there are atrocities like this happening in modern times - Rwanda and Darfur to name a couple. And just like Cambodia, the governments around the world that could affect change, don't. The world stood idly by while 2 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot's reign of terror and we're still sitting on the sidelines. Maybe there's just too much injustice in the world to to change it all. Maybe serving only our self interests is simply the necessity of prioritizing what would be an otherwise very long "to do list." I don't know. All I know is that regardless of nationality, race or creed, we are all human. When innocent Cambodians' stain classroom floors with blood, we should all hear them screaming.