Day 12: Atrocity day

That’s right folks, it’s the post we’ve all been waiting for: ATROCITY DAAAAAY!

We slept in ’til 8 for a bit of a treat. It’s a well-known fact that when gearing yourself up for some atrocity tourism, you need to take all the treats you can get.

The girl on the desk of our cheap-but-sociable new guesthouse got us a tuktuk, the likes of which should never have made it out of the ’70s. It was a rusty disaster that pootled along the roads at max. 5 miles an hour, being overtaken by EVERYTHING, including a scooter carrying what appeared to be a dying man and a young woman holding up the dying man’s IV. Not even kidding. Every time our driver accelerated, the engine made loud and uncomfortable dying noises. Death chokes. It wouldn’t’ve been so bad if that was the norm, but in general the tuktuks here are in great condition: glossy red wooden frames, fabric-covered foam on the seats, the ability to overtake schoolkids on scooters… bloody luxury mate! There was a clear distintion between ours and all the rest: they were Audis; ours was a beat-up Skoda. People kept looking at us and laughing. ACTUAL laughter. Smug bastards.

We made it to Choueng Ek, the Killing Fields. The road there is the worst I’ve been on. All over the towns/cities you’ll see people wearing facemasks, but it’s always a bit bemusing; on this road almost EVERYONE had one. Easy to see why: the dust and exhaust fumes were so thick it was like breathing sand. And people LIVE along these roads, and work along them, and commute down them; they have to breathe this stuff every day. No wonder they mask up. Not sure I’ve ever been grateful for breathable air. I am now.

Anyway. The Killing Fields. What a riot. Everyone gets an audio tour included in the admission price. They’ve planned a route out and you follow it, listening to the relevant recording at each point of interest. Tears happened. Just little unobtrusive ones. Hurt my heart. Hadn’t expected it to. Something like that seems too big to really comprehend. But the audio – and the setting: beautiful, peaceful – changes your experience: you’re cut off from everyone else, all making your own way around, listening to the explanations and experiences at your own pace; everyone in their own worlds with soft voices whispering real-life horror stories in their ears. It becomes personal, a private experience. There are fenced-off graves where hundreds of people have left bracelets. I was here. I listened. I won’t forget. There was a pond for contemplation, and a beautiful piece by a Cambodian composer whose name I wrote down somewhere. There was a sugarcane tree whose serrated stalks had been used to saw open the throats of victims. There was a huge tree against which they’d bashed out the brains of the babies. In the centre, a momument filled with the bones of the dead. It sounds morbid but was not so. The whole experience seemed heartfelt, based on quiet remembrance and contemplation rather than making genocide into an exhibition. It was horrorful, but also peaceful. Monks were there, among the visitors. You came away with the sense of a wound being healed, if you’ll excuse the cliche.

Tuol Sleng felt like the opposite: alcohol poured on the wound. It was angry, had every right to be angry. It showed you a torture house that used to be a school and photographs of the tortured dead. There was no audio tour, just barbed-wire corridoors and classrooms turned to jail cells, and the false confessions of their victims. There were instruments and paintings and cabinets full of bones.

There was also a photography exhibition showing those who’d been part of the Khymer Rouge and worked in S-21. Their S-21 ID photo was juxtaposed with a recent shot of them in their current lives: farmers, grandmothers… just everyday people. There was a paragraph or two about their time with the Khymer Rouge. Some had believed in the cause; others feared for their lives, desparate to defect. It was haunting to know they’d gone on to have lives. How could their communities accept them? But it was an interesting project, a thoughtful perspective. Sometimes people involved in the horrors of the world are lumped together: the baddies, the psychos, the evil people. It’s easier to contemplate, I guess: them, us. But they’re just people. They could be anyone; anyone could be them.

Deep. Don’t drown, yo.

Afterwards we went to the Russian market and a fish tried to commit suicide in front of us. In a food alley it lept out of a basket and writhed out into the road. Laura, a veggie, freaked out. I, an idiot, tried to pick it up, no idea why. The thing was slippery, wriggled out of my hands as soon as they had it, flopped back onto the road. I felt like Golum, tried again. It escaped, almost got run over by a motorbike. Laura screamed. Street vendors nearby were pissing themselves. We got a tuktuk back to the guesthouse immediately – I’ve never needed a wash more in my life.

You stay classy.

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2 thoughts on “Day 12: Atrocity day

  1. davidbrookesuk says:

    Horrible, isn’t it? The “braining tree” was probably the worst thing I’ve seen in my life. The guy telling his story on the audiobook had a great voice: I can still hear it. Slightly accented Queen’s English.

    Apparently the staff at the killing fields walk around after a heavy rain to pick up bits of ‘fresh’ bone and cloth scraps that have come up out the ground. Just grim, grim stuff.

    Did your classy tuk-tuk driver offer to take you to the shooting range afterwards? Just oblivious.

  2. Bruce Cason says:

    Just like most Nazis and SS got absorbed back into German society.and how many British killers too. War switches something inhuman on in us – and it can switch off again too. We are all capable of atrocities – though we don’t like to believe that. 😦

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