Sometimes death looks just like you and me

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August 30th 2009
Published: August 30th 2009
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Sometimes death stares at you with eyes wide open. Sometimes it’s just a sleeping child

Crap aside. Let’s talk real life. You know what a school is? A huge building full of happy children. Or with the creativity of cruelty; a prison infamous for torture beyond your imagination Tuol Sleng prison where the Pol Pot-regime had its’ go at real human beings, makes everything else seem insignificant and ridiculous. This was my first stop in Cambodia - a country with this kind of a recent history deserves to be understood with these facts fresh in mind. Even just to visit this site, to read the testimonies and see the photos, is an unbearable experience.

Phnom Pehn.
There is the Silver-Pagoda, there is the Royal Palace, the riverbanks to stroll along, and the national museum. And there is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng, or The former security office no 21, makes any Cambodian shiver by its’ name. If Pol Pot and his terrible regime turned Cambodia (or the Democratic Kampuchea, as it was called at the time -funny how all these regimes of various quality loves the word “democratic”. . . ) into a tormented body, then Tuol Sleng was one of the vital organs.

“Sighseeing to the Killing Fields, miss?”

I arrived in Phnom Pehn international airport in the early afternoon. The little airbus was the only aircraft present. The tuk-tuk-trip into town took me through rather dingy streets. On one of the walls was a faded print, suggesting the trips the driver could offer: “Central Market, National Museum, Royal Palace, the Killing fields or shooting range”. The latter is a place where you can go and - if you have such a desire, pay for using everything from a simple gun, to a bazooka, and shoot down a specially designated cow. Yes. Believe it or not.
Soon I clearly understood why the area sometimes is referred to as Indochina. The Indian influence is obvious. Not only do the people look different - darker, perhaps, than the Chinese, but also their alphabet, the chaos, the smells - something was definitely different. Throughout the history, the Cambodians have been subject to a significant influence of Indian culture and mythology.
The driver dropped me off, disappointed that I did not want to make a deal for the next day to go to the Killing fields, or at least check in at the hotel where he could fish in some provision, but he was courteous.
My hotel was lovely. Green palms, jazz, French and Italian a la carte in a tiny, tiny, but oh so tasteful little restaurant. Outside, by the gate, tuk-tuk drivers were swarming about, but like trained cats, never crossing the actual doorstep of the hotel. They were standing under the palms, watching tourists sipping their wine. The scene was almost colonial.
Opposite was the Tuol Sleng.

Blood and jasmine

I don’t know how to start to write about the prison. How do you write about pain? About injustice? Don’t you have to witness the incredible yourself to believe the incredible?
The school is huge. At the time, more than 1600 people were employed as staff. At the most, it inhibited nearly 6000 prisoners.
As I entered the first yard, a lovely smell of jasmine filled the air. Was it this smell the prisoners could enjoy while they arrived? The day was bright, the palms bear young bananas and coconuts. Some local tunes from a radio created a nice atmosphere. But nobody around smiled.
I have seen it before. Hiroshima. Yad Vashem - Israel, The holocaust complex in Armenia, Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland. People in shock and disbelief. Wandering down the first alley, a huge sign gave us the first impression what the daily regime was like:

Concentration camp rules

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

The first building contained quite “nice” cells. Some torture instruments. The rooms, all tiled, looked absurdly cosy! The yellow light gave them all a warm tint. But the photos on the wall of twisted, distorted bodies, drenched in their own blood brought one quickly back to reality. The building was so big, the walls so silent. Was it really true that there had been such atrocities going on?
Yes indeed. Coming out of the first building, there is a huge gallows. The guards used to tie the victims hands on the back and pull them upside down until they lost conscience, whereupon they would be lowered into a sink of water used as fertilizer, so to wake them up again. This went on and on. Earlier, the ramp was used by schoolchildren in their physical training.

. . . and sometimes death looks just like you and me

The next building was a true prison, tiny wooden cells to store people, just like books in an archive. But books are appreciated. These people were regarded as waste. From here one started the display of photos. Old people, young people, women, children. Sometimes you could spot the disbelief in their eyes, sometimes sorrow, some would have pure fear written in their eyes, others had seemingly given up - staring at the camera with a completely empty expression - thousands of photos - every face representing extreme anguish, extreme loneliness of their horrible situation.
It went on and on. One room after the other. Skulls. Pictures of skulls. Testimonies. Stories from the everyday life under Pol Pot, or Saloth Sar, as his real name was.
And a very interesting exhibit by a former Pol Pot supporter, a Swede. His photos from a visit in Cambodia was followed by comments: What he thought back then, vs. his up to date ideas - now that he had realised what was going on. The contrast was very impressive.
So many photos! So many destinies! The numerous pictures of dead were endless. Sometimes death looked took form of distorted bodies, sometimes death was a corpse that looked like a meatball - chained to a bed. Sometimes the victim had no face left at all. But in fact most of the victims showed no special expression at all, just staring into the lens with a face that leaves to the viewer to guess their emotions and thoughts. They looked just like you and me. But sometimes, sometimes some of the dead had open eyes, gazing out in infinity - with something that almost reminded a smile - sometimes they had closed their eyes, resting with a peaceful, nearly content look, just like an angel.
The Pol Pot was good at keeping a record in this prison. But so many others died without a trace.
I don’t know. Perhaps the most important question after visiting such a place, should be; could I ever commit such atrocities?

Pol Pot - a man of no regrets

As I felt depression build up inside, I realized more and more how the whole regime was a huge absurdity. All educated people, people who served the former regime, foreigners and middle class citizens were regarded as the “new people”, or just bad people, and would be picked out as especially unwanted. When “getting rid of any unwanted individual”, it was considered as most safe to uproot the unwanted elements properly; meaning also kill babies and all family members, this in order to prevent any revenge, but also to get rid of the problems for good.
Other absurdities was that there were no culture, no books, no education, no medicine, no post, no bank - no money, coloured clothes were forbidden, people wearing glasses suspicious, no private property, no foreigners - except from special delegates allowed in - and finally - of course no food. Furthermore; children belonged to Khmer Rouge, love was unheard of, flirting could lead to execution.
What is really strange, is that while other figures such as Stalin and Hitler thrived on the personal cult, Pol Pot went to the extreme opposite, keeping a very low profile. Anyway, when he was confronted with his atrocities and regime later on, he expressed that he did not know fully what was going on, and whatever he knew, he was clear about having no regrets. Pol Pot died in 1998 - just in time to escape charges.
About 20 000 people were taken to Tuol Sleng. Only 12 survived.
During Pol Pots horror-regime, between 1975 and 1979, it is estimated that at least 2 million people (out of 7) died as a direct consequence of the regime. Nobody has been yet convicted for the atrocities.

Try to visit these pages for more information:

Recommended reads:

“A Cambodian prison portrait” by Vann Nath
“ Stay alive my son”, Pin Yathay

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