Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Why do Cambodians Smile?

I found myself pondering this very question on the bus journeys from Phnom Penh to Kompong Trach, Kompong Trach to Kep and Kep back to Phnom Penh. It's not a rhetorical question. I want the answer to it, I just can't think of a suitable explanation.It may seem like a strange question to ask, but hopefully during the course of this blog you'll understand why it needs to be asked... and answered.

It was my visit to the Killing Fields and S-21 that prompted me to ask the question. On my first full day in Phnom Penh I decided to take in some history and arranged a tuk-tuk to Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, and then the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng used to be a school until the Khmer Rouge regime took hold. Under the Khmer Rouge it was turned into a prison to house 'enemies of the Khmer Rouge' - a  loosely defined group of people which included intellectuals, women, children and even some Khmer Rouge officials. Although Tuol Sleng was officially defined as a prison it bore a lot more similarities to a death camp. More than 20 000 people were taken to Tuol Sleng and only 7 people left with their lives.

An old classroom, turned into a torture facility

Walking around S-21 was one of the most painful, heartbreaking experiences I have ever had to endure. It has been left mostly as it was found when the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled and it serves as a chilling reminder of this amazing country's bloody history. I walked into rooms that used to be classrooms and found only steel beds on which prisoners were tortured and killed. In the courtyard, objects that used to be used by children to exercise had been converted into objects of torture. Classroom walls had been knocked down to create mass holding cells and in other rooms tiny cells (0.8m x 2m) had been built to separate prisoners. Torture devices and crude shackles were contained in yet more classrooms and the walls were covered in paintings depicting the violence that unfolded there less than half a century ago. However, what truly tore at my heart were the pictures of the faces of all the people who were murdered at Tuol Sleng. Thousands of faces stared back at me with such a huge range of emotion ranging from open defiance to utter terror. They seemed to appeal to me for help. Their expressions all asked the same thing of me - Never let this happen again.

The faces of thousands of people who died at Tuol Sleng
Blood still stains the floors of S-21

I left Tuol Sleng feeling a sense of shame - I had come to Cambodia as an ignorant tourist, aware of the brutality that had unfolded here only 30 years ago, yet uncaring. As I walked out of the main gate I was struck by the realisation that leaving Tuol Sleng was a privilege that had been taken from so many people. As I walked out of Tuol Sleng I was greeted with smiles from all sides. Why?

The stupa at the Killing Fields
The next stop of the day was the Killing Fields. It's hard to imagine a more brutal history than that of S-21, but the Killing Fields is one of the few places that can claim to have a more violent history. 15km outside of Phnom Penh, in the beautiful countryside, there is a large stupa in the centre of a lush patch of grass. At the centre of this stupa there is a column about 3 stories high. In this column are the skulls of more than 15 000 people who were killed and buried at the Killing Fields. Behind the stupa the ground is pock-marked with craters. These craters were all mass graves, the largest contained 450 people.

Never let this happen again
The Killing Fields of Chhoueng Ek. Prisoners from Tuol Sleng were taken there to be executed. 2 or 3 times a month a truck, loaded with prisoners, would pull up. The prisoners would be taken, one-by-one, to the edge of a grave and forced to kneel. They would then be bludgeoned on the back of the head so as not to waste bullets, or make a noise. Most of the time the prisoners were killed instantly, but many of the prisoners survived the bludgeoning and were buried alive. Nobody escaped the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Mothers were forced to watch as their babies were held by their ankles and beaten against a tree. Not a single person who was taken there left.

Why do Cambodians Smile?

This single question has been bouncing back and forth in my mind for the past week. After seeing the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng I can see no reason. The Khmer Rouge regime killed nearly 2 million people. Almost a quarter of the entire population. There is not a single Cambodian alive who has not been affected by the Khmer Rouge.

There are, of course, other questions that I have asked myself that remain unanswered. What drives people to  commit these crimes? How did they justify their actions? Are we really such an advanced species when only 30 years ago a supposedly educated man inflicted these horrors on an entire country? Why do we never learn from our mistakes? What the fuck is wrong with us?

And yet I keep coming back to that bothersome question. The one that can't be answered.

Why do Cambodians smile?

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