Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Security Prison 21

It was a cool evening in Phnom Penh, the low-lying French colonial houses in the capital slowly fading into the bluish darkness as I gazed from the rooftop of the Chinese-owned Golden Gate Hotel, situated in the posh diplomatic neighborhood. It was also surprisingly silent — nothing like the constant roar of cars, buses, MRTs and motorcycles in Taipei or other big Asian cities. As night fell, my thoughts turned to the city’s past — three decades ago, to be precise, when a nightmare of unprecedented evil would descend upon the city, force everybody out, and reset the clock to zero in an orgy of bloodletting. From my vantage point, I could almost see families being forced from their homes; men, women and children, at first not comprehending what was happening, being murdered in the streets by the Khmer Rouge, or taken away to the Killing Fields, where more than 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered.

Before being taken to one of the 800 mass graves discovered so far in Cambodia, many Cambodians were held at the infamous S-21, which prior to being turned into a prison had been the Chao Ponhea Yat High School. Today, the site is known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which I visited on Saturday.

In a mere four years (from 1975-1979), an estimated 20,000 Cambodians are believed to have been held at S-21, which consists of a few concrete complexes surrounded by barbed wire and a few desolate trees. Even as a school, the buildings must have been grim. Reconfigured by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and mostly left the way it was found when the Vietnamese liberated the capital in 1979, the buildings have retained an aura that can only be explained as lingering evil. The moment one approaches them, one is visited by the uncomfortable feeling that something not right, almost inhuman, happened here. Decades have failed to completely wash that sticky darkness away.

One three-story-high building is filled with row upon row of pictures of Cambodians — men, women and children — who at one point were detained there. A few are smiling, suggesting that the pictures were taken when the revolution was still young and news had yet to spread about what was going on. Many looked defiant, others terrified. The great majority — even the children — had the eyes of grown-ups who had seen their share of atrocities. Other pictures showed the narrow wooden chair on which prisoners were ordered to sit while their picture was taken, a vise-like device holding the head straight from behind. One picture has a young woman sitting on such a chair. She is holding a baby. Thousands of pictures. All of them were massacred. The “fortunate” ones were taken to one of the Killing Fields nearby and killed there, usually with farming equipment so that the precious bullets could be spared to fight the Vietnamese. The less “lucky” ones — former government officials, the educated class — were subjected to torture so evil in nature that the act cannot be reconciled with the need to extract information. In fact, there is only one way to explain what went on there: the torturers took delight in inflicting horrendous, sadistic pain on their victims. In other words, torture was not a means to an end, but was rather the end in itself, evil unleashed for no purpose.

The next building shows us what happened. Climb a few stairs and you find yourself on a balcony surrounded by barbed wire, designed in such a way that while it would prevent inmates from running away, the wounds inflicted would never be severe enough to make suicide an option (some, however, were able to put their hands on knives or pistols and managed to do so). The rooms on the ground floor are fairly large, perhaps five by seven meters. There is nothing in them, aside from an iron bed frame in the center. On one wall, a black-and-white picture shows the state the room was in when it was discovered in 1979: human remains shackled to the bed, twisted like insects, their banged-in faces frozen in agony and a pool of dark blood underneath the bed. Here again, various agricultural instruments were used: axes, shovels, knives, pincers. Room after room, the spectacle of horror is the same. Only the victims differ, and the manner in which they were tortured and finally murdered. It is easy to imagine oneself in such a room, or the cries that must have emanated from them, even if special glass windows were used to dampen the sound.

Another building has the holding cells, their size depending on which floor they are located. Some were meant for groups, while others were individual cells, about one-by-one meter. The separations are made of red brick and the narrow wooden door has a small window at the center. The hours spent locked in those rooms must have been interminable and harrowing.

After S-21, a one-hour bus ride will take you to Choeung Ek, one of the Killing Fields on the outskirts of the city. The name itself has an ominous ring to it. There, among the grassy knolls and ancient trees, thousands were eliminated and thrown into mass graves. As one walks around the area, bone remains, pieces of clothing still dapple the ground, left untouched as monuments to what happened here. “Here lie the remains of about 100 women,” a wooden placard reads, just above a small pond filled with murky water. Here lie about 150 corpses, reads another. Then there is the “magic tree,” which was used to hang loudspeakers that blasted loud noises to drown out the moans of people who were being executed. As many as 20,000 Khmers are believed to have been murdered there. At the center, a simple shrine has been erected, which contains the skulls of about 8,000 Cambodians. May the souls of the dead rest in piece, reads a card left behind by visitors from the Japanese Red Cross. Underneath the skulls, clothes have been piled up, ostensibly belonging to the many victims. All over the county, similar shrines, their bellies filled with skulls and bones, can be found, reminding us that the nightmare spared no one. City dwellers and peasants alike were all fair game in Pol Pot’s infernal revolution.

I visited S-21 and Choeung Ek with a group of students from Taipei American School. Sadly, most didn’t seem to fully grasp the significance of those locations, or simply couldn’t relate to them. One or two didn’t want to visit, but we made them. Horrible though these places may be, they serve as reminders of man’s potential for inhumanity — an extreme, granted, in Cambodia’s case — and of the fact that these things can happen again. Fifteen years after the liberation of Cambodia, about 800,000 Rwandans were being killed in genocide. Never again are empty words, mere slogans, if we fail to learn from the past, whcih is why I found it unfortunate that the children I was with did not seem interested. Some of them are descendants of victims of the 228 Massacre in Taiwan, where as many as 20,000 people were massacred by the KMT regime. Taiwan had its very own S-21, which was located on Green Island. The horrors there were of a different degree, granted, but no less real for that. Other students were from South Korea and will soon have to do their military service. Their home country faces an unstable enemy that, in a matter of hours, could incinerate Seoul and kill tens of thousands, if not more. 

It can touch them. It can touch all of us. We cannot afford to ignore these things, or believe that we are exceptional in that somehow history would spare us. It spares no one.

Life, however, goes on, and Cambodians are healing, however slow and painful the process may be. A handful of surviving Khmer Rouge officials, including the director of S-21, are now in the dock and awaiting trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. Justice was never served to Pol Pot, who passed away before he could be apprehended (for many years, top Khmer Rouge figures were allowed to walk freely, while others fled overseas or across the border into Thailand). Lower Khmer Rouge militants, for their part, faced immediate justice after the Vietnamese came in: they were sent to the wall and executed.

All things in balance. The principal reason for the trip was to build houses for 10 families who, because of their deeds in the previous year, had been selected by villagers. The site was a mere hour’s drive outside Phnom Penh and was striking for its poverty (as a local reporter told me, there’s Phnom Penh, and then there’s Cambodia). The contrast with the capital, what with its diplomatic compounds, bars, restaurants and SUVs, could not have been more obvious. Entire families lived on next to nothing, proof that whatever money is being made has yet to trickle down to ordinary Cambodians, who make the great majority of the population. Only a small corrupt clique, fed by diplomats, NGOs and international aid (China and the US are fighting it off for influence, the same local reporter told me), as well as the proceeds from illegal logging, mining, prostitution, and sheer corruption, is benefiting and prospering. In that injustice, I fear, may lie the seeds of the next revolution, which could reopen old, terrible wounds and unleash yet another round of bloodletting. Looking at the beautiful, brown-skinned children who found joy with a mere soccer ball, I hoped against hope that unlike previous generations, they would be allowed to prosper and not be visited by some new iteration of the Khmer Rouge demons.

1 comment:

Formosa Coweater said...

Anybody that has seen those black and white pictures of the murdered victims and the paintings made later of the various torture devices and techniques retains those images forever in much the same way as when visiting Auschwitz and seeing the rows of pictures of Jewish victims of the Nazis. Pure evil that should never be forgotten or repeated.

Amazing, then, the whole cycle was played out again in recent history in Rwanda where hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Hutu moderates were murdered in similarly barbaric fashion. How man could perpetrate such violence against their fellow man, I will never understand.