In April of 1975 Cambodia exhaled half a sigh of relief at the end of the civil war only to find that the worst was yet to come. In the next four years, Cambodia was subjected to unimaginable evil and senseless suffering under Pol Pot’s leadership of the Kampuchea, aka the Khmer Rouge. Instilled terror led to silent obedience as the KR forced labor, starvation and brutal torture on the Khmer people, reducing their population by nearly 25% in 4 years. All educated persons and government officials were subjected to torture before execution. Politique Potentielle’s mission was to return the Khmer people back to “base” people — to create a pure agrarian society. The Kampuchea called this time, Year Zero. It seemed to me a sequel of Mao’s Revolution.
S21, aka Tuol Sleng, was one of many facilities designed for detention, interrogation, inhuman torture and execution. Walking the grounds made me ill. My stomach churned as I entered the rooms used to torture human beings. I stood still trying to imagine the evil performed within those four walls, poor helpless souls crying out praying for swift arrival of death. My eyes glanced at the torture beds and tools. Some rooms were split into tiny cells that served as living quarters where people were chained and confined to small spaces. A small plastic bucket was provided for waste, they slept next to their waste.
Giant pots four feet high and 3 feet in diameter served as torture dunk tanks sitting below a monkey bar-like structure. People were hanged upside down for long periods of time and their heads dunked in the tanks filled with waste liquid. Dozens of photo displays showed the faces of those killed by the Khmer Rouge. S21 took the lives of nearly 20000 people. KR photodocumented all their victims prior to their execution. I can still see their eyes. Fear. Terror. Agony. Empty hopeless acceptance. The emotion conveyed dissuaded me from taking pictures of the displays. When treated like animals, humans become shells.
I walked past a third building with barbed wire walls on each floor. Torture tools were displayed. Hoes, palm knives, shovels… tools victims were using daily to farm. To prevent prisoners from suicide, the regime created barbed fences. The ultimate mental torture is to know you cannot even choose to die. Thoughts of Foxconn surfaced – the nets that say ‘fuck you’ to those who attempted to jump off the buildings. How could people be so cruel? This was not very long ago. Actually, this is today. Syria. Lebanon. More.
That was it. I could not get myself to climb anymore stairs or see another room or building. No more for me.
Visiting the Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, was confusing. The scenery is beautiful. Green, breeze, peaceful. A beautiful gold and white Buddhist stupa, 62 meters in height, is filled with skulls and bones excavated from the mass graves. Walking around the field, you spot tiny human bones and teeth embedded in the dirt. The heartbreaking moment was when I approached a glass tank filed with children’s clothes. Children were taken to a tree and beaten to death. The tree trunk was said to be covered with blood and brain matter when first discovered. I saw a pair of tiny purple cotton shorts. That child could not have been more than 3-4yo. How could anyone do that?
I heard myself swearing in three languages. I wanted to hang Duch, Pol Pot, all the soldiers responsible for the atrocities… the stupid ass people who believed this was okay and participated… My chest swelled with anger as I let it sink in that this was less than 40 years ago. 3 million people were killed. And it’s still happening right now. Atrocities. Injustice. Evil.
I sat with my anger, rage, and hatred until it morphed into a realization that the very feelings I was experiencing, if mishandled, or if I were misled, contained in them the possibility to transform into abhorrent, inhuman acts. I am human and fallible. Given specific ingredients, this is always a possibility. This thought scared me a little — are we just a mere product of our environment? Can all human beings be capable of being both Pol Pot and the victimized? Equally? What can we do about what is happening now so that we aren’t adding to more museums like these in the middle east?
If nothing else, I am thinking. Questions with no answers.
End of Day1.