March 20, 2010

S-21: Tuol Sleng Musuem

Continuing last week's trend of a confronting and touristy Saturday morning, I visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Located just a few blocks from the volunteer house, this former high school turned torture and execution center is one of the most famous sites in Cambodia. Tuol Sleng High School was renamed S-21 by Pol Pot's “Democratic Kampuchea.” This site was made infamous by the estimated 20,000 people detained in the compound between 1975-1979.

In a moment of confidence, I decided to ride a bike to Tuol Sleng this morning. I figured that my weeks of practice on the side roads between the house, the school and the Sport Club had prepared me to cross Mao Tse Toung Boulevard (yes, that's the real name). Actually, once I cleared the traffic jam at the Russian Market, maneuvering on the busy street was quite easy. Rolling up street 113 towards Tuol Sleng, the residential neighborhood was unassuming, very normal. Even the houses directly across from from the compound were normal—washing hung out, children running about. I parked my bike, paid the entrance fee and followed the swarm of Keen sandal/shoes and large rear-ends into the compound.

Immediately cameras were flickering, shutters flying to capture the horror of Tuol Sleng. I watched as people photographed the sign with the translation of the Khmer Rouge regulations. I wondered about these tourists' poor relatives who were going to be subjected to a slide-show viewing of every captioned sign at Tuol Sleng. My camera safely at home, I read Pol Pot's rules, wondering how “thwart” made a whopping three appearances in the 10 regulations. Although I would have greatly preferred to explore on my lonesome, the sheer number of tourists on a Saturday morning meant that least 25 strangers and I were wondering the long line of rooms in Building A together. In each of the former classrooms, a metal bed frame, bent from the beatings which took place stood silently in the middle of the room. On the wall was a picture taken by the Vietnamese liberators of a prisoner beaten and left to die at the end of the regime. Although most of the blood has been washed clean from the floor, anyone who looks upward will notice the ominous red splatters on the ceiling. Building A amounts to room after room of the same solemn bed, the same gruesome pictures and the same empty feeling.

Building B was the most difficult. Like the Nazi's, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers, documenting and photographing each prisoner before the murder. In Building B, hundreds upon hundreds of these photos are showcased. At first, I looked carefully at each photo, searching the faces for feeling. Did they know what was going to happen, I wondered? I peered in to the glassy-eyed women, and the hard-faced men guessing whether they knew. As I continued down the endless rows of photos, the eyes started looking back. The women and their lopped-off hair stared at me, and the men, faces defiant, looked me in the eye. The room became a sea of eyes watching me. I no longer wondered if they knew. Each face knew something. It was a room full of knowing.

Nearly in a trance, I found myself roaming other floors and other buildings walking down barbed wire lined corridors, peering into empty rooms with shackles and numbers on the wall. Mass detention rooms full of prisoners. The infamous bloody handprint in one cell was particularly frightening, but in the context it was just another remnant of a torture center. Suddenly away from the rest of the tourists, I walked into something even worse than the handprint. I found myself in a long corridor of small wooden cells that looked like vertical coffins with tiny windows. Disoriented in the dim light and thick wood smell, my heart raced. Where is the exit!?

A guest book lay open in one room with multilingual well-wishes from other visitors. I scanned the book, wondering what I could contribute. What could I possibly say? I'm sorry? This place is filled with horrors beyond all imagination? Peace and Love? I didn't write anything.

I left Tuol Sleng like many people do. Confused about humanity and the human experience. If humans are capable of such atrocities, how can we trust anyone? I thought of my students at CWF. The incredible resilience of the human race astounds me. My students are the generation after Pol Pot, and it's up to them to continue rebuilding Cambodia.