Tuol Sleng. S-21. The infamous prison of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. After Vietnam invaded in 1979 and the US switched political support to the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam transformed S-21 into a museum, documenting the atrocities.
Many things strike you about the museum. It’s old. Run-down. Many of the torture chambers left as they were, the instruments lying on the metal beds, a single large photo of the victim on the beige wall. You can walk through the tiny cells, some separated by wood, some by brick, the balconies covered in barbed wall to prevent desperate prisons from jumping to their deaths, euthanizing themselves against more torture. You walk through endless rows of pictures of the prisoners – men, women, young, and old. Young girls and boys stare at you with blank eyes, sometimes a tinge of anguish peaks through, or you see a slight grimace in the otherwise set stares. Women with babies in their arms face you in black and white. The faces seem to stretch on forever. You want to move quickly through them, spare yourself the silent torture of their penetrating gaze. But you can’t. Or I can’t. I looked at every face. Everyone who had a story, a family, a life. What right did I have to turn away. In Guatemala, victims walked weeks just to go to some run-down commissioner in a tent to tell their story to the truth commission. The desire to tell stories, to explain what happened, to be have your sufferings heard and recognized, it burns deeply within us all. What right did I have to not listen to what they had to say. After all they went through, didn’t their silence at least have the right to be heard.
The rows of pictures continue, and begin to transform to scenes of torture. You recognize faces of inmates you saw earlier, now twisted and distorted in anguish and horror. Children tortured to death in the burst of revolutionary fervor, in a desire for an agrarian utopia. It’s often overlooked that genocide is a utopian ideology; it’s idealistic in the purest sense. Genocidiares have a vision of an ideal world, and set about establishing it, with blood and fire.
I think of the pretty Cambodian girl I hung out with last night. I see her face among the rows of black and white photos. Her in the cramped prison cells.
I flip through the notes from previous visitors. Never again. Nunca mas. Never forget. Words of outrage.
And Darfur still burns.