Sunday, February 7, 2016

Bones Beneath Us: The Genocide Museum and Killing Fields of Cambodia

Woke up at 7:00 am today. Didn’t want to go back to sleep so I read articles on my phone until 8:30. I didn’t want to have another drowsy morning of sleeping in. That room feels like a drug. That absence of natural light is so deceiving. We got out right away. Caught a tuktuk to the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields.

On the way to the museum we saw a tuktuk hauling a bed of tires, it even had tire covers made out of tire parts. To the side of the road an old man was pulling a cart behind him and honking a horn made out of a plastic coke bottle. I thought I had seen slums outside Aeon mall, but that was a naive observation. The real slums lined the red dirty roads leading to the killing fields. At least the people in the city live in four walls. The walls may be decaying but at least they are real walls. The homes we saw on the sides of the roads were sheds. Just blue to slate gray wavy aluminum walls. The roofs were no different. Apparently it takes five big pieces of aluminum to make a house. Some of their doors were left open. Some of them didn’t have doors. But I could see into their dirt-floor homes which were only one room. Some were built on stilts above the water. Those has floors made out of wooden planks, but the cracks were huge. One could see through to the ground below, which had accumulated a mound of garbage. Large trucks made dust storms in their paths. The sewage water below homes emitted an rotten egg stench into the streets. It was a bumpy ride. One hand clung to the pole, the other covered my mouth. I didn’t want to breath in or even open my eyes for fear of letting that poison red dust into my body. 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

a prisoner's room

the museum as formerly a prison formerly a school, the hallways still resemble a school

the outside of the prison

makeshift doors leading from room to room

where a high ranking official was killed

view of Phnom Penh from behind the barbed wire

At the Genocide Museum, where hundreds of black and white photographs of victims lined the walls,  my eyes fixated on the photo of one girl. Her eyes were watery, as were the eyes of most children who knew their fates. But from a certain angle, it looked like she had a tear on her cheek. It was glistening. I looked closely and saw that it was not a tear, but a chip in the glass covering her photo. If I changed the angle, the tear disappeared. I spent a few minutes just looking at this one photo, making the tear appear and disappear and I changed views. I wanted her to still be alive. Not as an old woman, but as the girl she was in the photo. I didn’t want to believe she died in that awful camp for no reason at all. And now, without her knowledge, and probably to her sadness, her photograph hung in a museum, obscure and unidentified among hundreds of photographs. Her death meaningless. 

After the museum I spent an hour reading a NYTimesarticle about the invasion of the Vietnamese, and of the discover of the prison. I read that article from the air-conditioned first floor of a Taiwanese bubble tea store not even 15 minutes from where the prison sits now. Outside the fields we passed a caravan of trucks heading to a wedding. One truck held the musicians, evidently rehearsing while en rout. Another turn following closely behind contained the floral sculptures, and a final one bore elaborate gifts. Life, for these people continues.  

I am not the only one to notice these comparisons. David Chandler also remarked on the contradictions:
“On every visit, I've been struck by the contrast between the peaceful, sun-soaked compound and the horrific exhibits on display, between the whitewashed classrooms with their yellow and white tile floors and the instruments of torture they contain, between the children at play outside the buildings and the mug shots of other children en route to being killed….
In the museum, the eyes of the mounted mug shots, and especially those of the women and children, seem to follow me. Knowing as we do, and as they did not, that every one of them was facing death when the photographs were taken gives the photos an unnerving quality…”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields
the fields were previously an orchard

lake near the fields

bracelets left from a mass grave where women and children were found

skulls of victims inside the pagoda

a pagoda erected for victims

In the Killing Fields we walked over bone and cloth. The earth brings up more bones and cloth each day, as though the bodies are trying to speak through the soil. Before I visited I expected to see a flat, sprawling land. Like a large open rice field. I executed to see no bodies or bones, but to just simply know that hundreds and thousands of people had died on that soil. I didn’t know there were buried there, and that their bones would peak out underneath the soles of my shoes decades later. I don’t think I have ever been so close to human bones before. And seeing their torn clothes, how could I think that those clothes were once on a body, not a body, a person. One of the most moving moments was when I stood by the tree where the loudspeaker was held. When I heard the same sounds that victims heard in their last moments. The sound of revolutionary music, a woman’s voice singing into archaic recording technology, and the sound of a generator. Those noises were blaring in the dark night, which was lit up only with florescent lights. Those were someone’s last moments on earth. Not only someone’s, but many, many, peoples’.
I thought to myself, nothing is promised to us. No one promised us a good life,  old age, a painless death. No such promises were made. All of the bad endings are possible. Possible not at the will of god or the devil, but of fellow humans. The same humans who also want the promise of a good life and painless death. How can we break that mortal contract with one another? 

fragments of bone and clothing beneath tourist footprints

weather and erosion brings bones out of the ground

victim's clothing entwineed with roots of a tree

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