Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia – The Same Old Story
The boat peeled itself from the riverside pier cutting through the reddish torrents of the Tonle Sap River. We rounded a bend and Phnom Penh became a still frame in the rear-view-mirror. A still frame, however, that continued to haunt me as we followed the swollen Mekong northbound.
History is all too kind to humanity. Our glories and achievements are widely praised and our stride ever so confident as we, the ‘pinnacle’ of homonid evolution, march in the golden light of technology and comfort.
But what has really changed ? Moving out of the cold, damp, walls of the cave was, without doubt, a forward-thinking move, as was the patience excercised in taking the time to cook our meat over a flame before consumption. Yes, we’ve learned to plant crops, tame animals, identify medicines, create music and generally make our world a great deal more ‘user-friendly’ than our knuckle-dragging ancestors could have ever imagined. And should you now find yourself blushing and bursting with pride over the human story, now would be the time to pat yourself on the back because the song won’t get any sweeter from here on.
It could be any one of a number of places on the Earth. Any one of the countless places were stupidity, hate, envy, and greed has gotten the best of us, the ‘clever and evolved’ humans that we are. Anywhere and everywhere is, for the sake of this story, Cambodia, and anyone and everyone could be the people that suffered as well as those who inflicted the pain.
Thirty years of civil war has torn this country apart, murdered its most learned citizens, and butchered its own children. As timeless scenes of river life floated past on the banks of the Mekong, I made yet another attempt to process a few of the images that the first 10 days in Cambodia had presented me.
The border was more than an invisible line drawn across the landscape. From the abrupt end in the paved road leading from Thailand, along the pockmarked cart trail, past the crawling images of landmine victims, children in rags picking through the rubbish, peeling facades and broken street lights, my first impressions were desperation and lost hope.
But as great as the contrast that straddled the border was the warmth I saw in the faces. Mistrusting, wary eyes that had long since wept their tears dry, were still somehow filled with the undefeatable human spirit. They would continue the fight to live, to re-build…to survive, and that with joyful grace.
Perhaps it is they who have lived through the most misery that can greet the world’s challenge without fear. Knowing exactly what is to be gained and lost, they can smile at success and smile at disaster. Blood they have seen. They know how ruthless mankind can be. Cut-throat betrayals are no well-cloaked mystery here, it is all on the table though even hushed tones rarely explore them.
The sun was shining and a light breeze tugged against palms that lined the inner courtyard of the school. It was a peaceful scene that only the eerie silence could unmask. It wasn’t the silence that settles over a schoolyard after classes. No, it wasn’t a simple silence like that. It wasn’t the lack of sound that created the vacuum, but the sound of 17000 screams and cries that had been suddenly stilled. And it pulled the joy from the birds, the blue from the sky and the warmth from the sun.
Standing naked in the bitter serenity I entered the first building. The bare metal frame of a bed stood in the middle of the first room. On the wall a picture of how the room looked when the Vietnamese entered the city in 1979 after toppling the Khmer Rouge. The bloody corpse that was sprawled across the same vacant bed-frame that I was now standing next to, was beaten beyond recognition.
In 1975 the school was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and transformed into prison S-21. More than 17000 people, men, women and children, were held and tortured here before being sent to the extermination camp of Choeng Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh. Virtually everyone that was brought here was murdered.
Children were used to work as guards, torturers and executioners, the same children that in more peaceful times might have come to these buildings to learn to read and write or about the glory of the Khmer heritage, or perhaps even about the attrocities of the Nazis during the second world war.
Perhaps in another land or on another planet that would have happened, but in the mid-seventies in Cambodia the malleable, curious minds of children only learned to numb themselves from the cries of pain. They quickly became able to inflict brutality that would sicken most adults. They learned to cross a certain border that lies untouched in most humans and once beyond nothing short of death could still the mad appetite for blood and lament. Most of the executioners and torturers were then murdered by their successors.
I looked about the room, touched the metal frame and the crude shackles that lay on the floor. The walls were still littered in places with flecks of dried blood, or brain, or the last scream of defiance.
I walked from room to room staring at the pictures in disbelief. Every prisoner was photographed upon entering S-21 and their faces still burn the very walls where their pictures are now displayed. They were the faces that you can see on every street in the country. Faces of grandmothers, fathers, and children etched with the hollow expression of fear and angst.
Some were killed because they were educated, others because they wore glasses or had the soft hands of an office worker. Some were killed because of painfully extracted ‘confessions’ and others… just because. If one member of a family was singled out for death then the whole family was rounded up and murdered as well, to prevent any later revenge.
For those who survived the tortures of S-21 only one stop lie between them and heaven; the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Today a memorial stands before the sight of dozens of excavated mass graves where more than 8000 skulls are on display. Several of the graves have remained untouched but an estimated 17000 souls perished on the surrounding soil. Most were bludgeoned to death as bullets were too precious.
I wandered the site in silence until I was finallly forced to stop in my tracks. It was beside a grave where the bodies of more than 150 women and children were exhumed. Beside the open hole was a tree with a sign on it explaining it’s role in the sickening murders. A large nail had been driven about halfway into the trunk of the tree and the bodies of small children had been swung against the protruding head until their bodies went limp and they were thrown into the lifeless heap of flesh in the hole below.
I touched the tree, and then I held it. A tear that the tree had never been able to weep welled up in my eye. Some teeth were in a small pile beside the trunk and bits of bone and scraps of cloth littered the ground.
And I held the tree…or it held me. Surely it had already come to terms with the crimes that had stained its roots red. Surely it somehow understood that there is little more to be expected from the humans. But would it know that humans are not bound by the laws of harmony and balance that dictate its own life ? Could it ever understand that a human kills for sport ? For power, for money, for love ?
Tears and blood, murdered genius, broken families, bloodlines that ran hundreds of generations and ended in a pool beneath a tree, silent screams, haunting echoes, the soil was polluted, forever stained in the seemingly unending human tragedy that knows no borders or frontiers. We are not in Cambodia now. These tales haven’t changed in the 5000 years that we have been recording history. The characters are ever-changing as is the stage, but the cruelty and barbarism remains sadly the same. This is not an isolated corner of the developing world, this is on a backstreet in the town where you live, behind the glamorous facades of international corporations, behind democratic governments and the scariest place of all where it can still be found is in the mirror. This is a part of what we still are and while we look for pride in the footprints on the moon we shouldn’t be allowed to forget that our ‘inteligence’ has only achieved a weak command over the material world while the beast within humanity still runs free.