Tuol Sleng Apnea

Trip Start Feb 20, 2012
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Trip End Oct 22, 2012


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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Since I entered in Cambodia I have often thought of the history of this country. It has been kind of a light motive that actually stemmed in my unconscious even before crossing the border. The dimension of the drama had been so big that somehow I could not escape constant background thoughts. While walking between Angkor temples, I could not avoid asking myself how could the same people move so far in the art of creating and then precipitate so dramatically in a bloody meticulously planned self-destruction. While walking around, in the streets, biking in the countryside, eating at the resturant or waiting the bus, the moltitude of faces had often ignitate in me series of questions that i was actually not daring to ask: "Which role had you played? Was it chosen? Did you killed? With gun? With knife? With the more human cowardice? Somebody that you knew? Did you repent? Did you give more love to your son because of that? Do you think often about that period? Do you cry? and back in those days, did you cry?". I looked in the eyes of the elder and the younger and tried to find the edge of that horror, tried to measure the resilience of a human being. I found myself thinking that when a society experience such a widespread terrible experience, it should be possible to see it emerge to the surface. It is somehow stupid. But i kept looking and trying to formulate questions and imagine answers.

Then I entered Tuol Sleng, a museum today, a torture place back in the Khmer Rouge years. My imagination had wandered around trying to define this "horror" and this former high school gave it a physical dimension. It took me more than 30 minutes to go through the first 6 rooms. Just empty rooms with a bed frame in the middle. One picture on the wall. The picture of the last person tortured till death on that bed. The coarse-grained pictures didn't show much, could just recognize the bed, and a body, my attention was anyhow drained to the big black blot below that, on the floor, the blood. The Frangipani flavor that I loved so much in the Wats, here was infesting the cells, nauseous. In the meantime the brain was starting to try to rationalize all of this. Just in the wrong way. 14-20,000 people tortured and killed in this prison. How many per each cell, if stored vertical?

Needed some time off. Outside. In the garden of the school there were the beam used by the students during the sport session. The same bean was used to hang the prisoner and pull them, till were fainting. You can not torture someone that has passed away. So you need jars filled with water, just the same jars that you can find even today in front of any countryside house. Also today the jar are used for storing water, it is needed when you don't have running water in your house. It is needed when you have to wake up fainted prisoners, or cause someone a drowning feeling. We might not remember it everyday, but all this not only happened again and again, it is happening again and again.

What somehow increase the feeling of asphyxiation is the fact that unlike many other situation, here the people killed the very next one without the person necessarily being to any extent different from the assassin. There were no white and black, Jews and Nazi, Tutsi and Hutu, Catholic and Muslim. Here everybody was Cambodian, here in Tuol Sleng they were mostly Khmer Rouge. This prison was for the cadre of the party. For the same that were in most cases killing outside this prison other civilians. Mr Duch and his fellows were taking one picture and measuring the height of each prisoner passing into this structure, pictures that are now aligned in a gallery of men and women, kids and elder, assassins and victims, some more the latter, some more the former, all looking straight in the camera.

When I finished the tour many hours after my entrance i felt dizzy. My brain was kind of wrapped in a plastic bag, my thoughts bounced to me from really far away. The counter had closed and the kids of the neighborhood had gained back the playground of the school to their possession. "Hello!, Hello!" Needed to go back and forward couple of times, to find someone opening the counter office and take some bags we left there. The last time I passed the kids made the act of closing the way to the bicycle, a pirate assault! I accelerated and made an ogre voice. They run away laughing, and I could just think "Run fast, learn how to run fast, kid.".

On the journal that day I read about the 14 hospital bed active for mentally disturbed people. 14 in the entire country, 120 psychiatrist, treating 250,000 patient. 32 years after the Cambodian genocide, the pain is still on the surface. The article ended up saying that "A survivor of the tsunami has scientific explanation of death and destruction. A genocide survivor - many survivor - seek the same." I can really not imagine what that explanation could be. What had been the "super great leap forward" the Khmer Rouge were looking for could be possibly explained, with words that would speak of economy, slavery, revolution, a new beginning, a change, a chance. Of course brutal but needed (at least in the eyes of some in those years). What could not be explained is the shiver running my back while reading the words "with warm revolutionary
fraternity"at the end of a letter that was sentencing to death a person, because suspicious, just that, suspicious.
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