rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-05-09 10:43

Prison Camp at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek

I suppose the Killing Fields have the distinction of being Cambodia's second-best known place - I won't say 'attraction' - after Angkor Wat. Visiting places of significance - historic places, important museums and art galleries, ruins, palaces, cemeteries, battlefields, fortresses - tend to make me moody and sullen, partly because of the history and atmosphere of the places themselves, and partly because of the attitude of what seems like every other motherfucker there. People who bring their kids and let them run wild, or who travel in colour-coordinated herds with tour guides bearing loudspeakers and flags, who point at exhibits and say "ooh, doesn't it look funny" or who compulsively take photographs and video of every little thing they see, as if they don't trust their eyes and ears and nose to remember it.

The Genocide Museum at Toul Sleng in Phnom Penh was initially built as an elementary school, similar in every way to the schools I've taught in in Korea the past three years, with big classrooms and a courtyard with a flagpole, lots of windows and high ceilings. When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, they changed the name to Toul Sleng, meaning something along the lines of Poisoned Hill, and gave it the codename S-21, Security Prison 21. Nobody outside Cambodia heard of it until the Vietnamese army recaptured the city in 1979, but in the intervening four years, somewhere between 14 and 20,000 Cambodians were incarcerated there for crimes which will sound familiar to anyone who's studied Stalinist or Maoist communism, or has read Cancer Ward or The Gulag Archipelago; effectively nothing. Of these, seven people survived. Tuol Sleng was a torture prison, designed to extract confessions of crimes meriting execution from its prisoners.

The ground level of A Block remains individual rooms, each containing an iron bed and various apparatus of torture; these were the confession rooms, better called torture rooms. Not execution rooms, since actually killing prisoners here was discovered - dead men make no confessions of counter-revolutionary guilt. Blocks B and D have mostly been cleaned and repainted, and now house a huge collection of photographs; mugshots of the prisoners as they checked in, and in a few cases photos of them during or after torture. These photos are probably the most remarkable part of the whole thing - the Khmer Rouge was very thorough indeed, and kept dossiers on all its prisoners. The faces in the photos are no different from the Khmers of today. One old man, perhaps a monk in a traditional robe, has a bodhisattva-like half-smile as his photo is being taken, but the rest of the thousands of photos are just frightened, shocked, surprised, sad, angry, confused, defiant, crushed, half-dead.

I took great pains to avoid the tour groups, the amateur photographers and the clingy young Thai couples. It's not that I think I'm any different - I'm a tourist and a ghoulish sightseer just the same - but strong experiences like this are not a group activity for me, and the less noise and bustle I have intruding upon my thoughts the better. By the time I got to C block I was mostly alone, and C Block is itself the hardest bit of the prison - electrified barbed wire covers the balconies, and the interior is mostly unaltered, definitely uncleaned, cells built twenty to a classroom out of red bricks and mortar, and on the upper levels, from wooden planking like pigsties. I say uncleaned, because even thirty years on, there remain bloodstains on the floor, walls, cielings. The place smells musty and quite literally leaves a bad flavour. Having left it this way may well be lack of labour - one of the record rooms on the third level of B Block is in an utter shambles, with potentially valuable genealogical and photographic records piled into corners, shoved in boxes under tables, everything covered in dust and bat shit, but I think there's value in seeing the prison as it was, rather than some tarted-up reconstruction.

The trip to the Killing Field at Choeung Ek, 15km southwest of the city, was strangely more of the same bleakness: crippling poverty, foully polluted water and a rough dirt road, even though it gets a million tourists every year. Choeung Ek isn't THE Killing Fields - just the most accessible from Phnom Penh. Only 9,00 or so bodies have been disinterred here, of a total somewhere between 1 and 3 million out of Cambodia's 8 million population who died under the Khmer Rouge, which they refer to as the Pol Pot Clique. Like in Russia and China, and I suppose we'll find in North Korea eventually, most of those executed were minorities of some kind - ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Lao, ethnic Cham, Christians, buddhist monks, and most of the millions weren't executed, but died of starvation, disease or exhaustion. The Killing Field at Choeung Ek is quite small in size - you can easily walk arounbd it in fifteen minutes and unlikeToul Sleng there's very little to see here. Come here without having gone to the museum first and you wouldn't really have a grasp on what you were looking at. It's just holes in the ground, partly filled with repugnant slimy green-grey water. The bones have been cleared away and mostly housed in a great white stone stupa in the centre of the grounds, but a large proportion of the area is still unexcavated.

It feels like a cemetery, but on the other hand, the locals don't really seem to treat it so. A few cows were grazing on the edges of one of the larger graves - now ponds; kids hassle you for money and coca-cola and photos and trinkets, there were a couple of old men sleeping in hammocks along one fence, it's all quite relaxed. On the way back to Phnom Penh,our tuk-tuk driver took us to a local place to eat - not half a kilometre from Choeung Ek - where we had lovely duck soup and rice and warm coke, as much as we could eat for $1 per person. Not even a restaurant per se, just a home who sold food for people if they wanted to stop by. Happy, relaxed Khmers living and getting on with life so close to the Killing Field helped lift the mood a bit.

Back in Phnom Penh the mood was lifted yet more; a family of grey monkeys playing and larking around with the locals on top of a banboo roof. People would hold their arms up and run towards the baby monkey, who'd be oblivious, then the mother monkey would jump up and down and snarl, then the baby monkey would go and play in the power lines, and the whole thing would start again. The father monkey just sat back and watched it all happen. Why can't we all just get along, maan?