Brutal Hands and Corrupt Minds

posted by Sarah Lundgren

When you Google “Cambodia,” the first results are about the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal dictatorship under Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. You can read histories and interviews, but you still won’t be able to truly feel the words. You can look at photographs and paintings, but you still won’t be able to understand just what those people saw. It’s like picking up the Diary of Anne Frank; you know what happened in the Holocaust, you’ve felt sympathy and compassion, but it’s not the same.

Even if you come here and see for yourself, walk through the lives of those lost to brutal hands and corrupt minds, I’m not sure you’ll ever be able to fully comprehend what it means to be a Cambodian, living in that time or the legacy after. But it’s for damn sure you’ll never forget the images.

An innocent child, with wide eyes full of incomprehension stares at me from behind plexiglass, his little tuft of black hair matted to his forehead. He wears a black shirt that stands out against a stark white background. He might be three, if he lived that long. His photograph stands among hundreds of others on a display, mostly adults, at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in the heart of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Some of their expressions display fear, others confusion, a rare few smile, but this one child stands out. A recognition of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge– there was no difference between a grown man and a small child. All but seven of the almost 20,000 prisoners in Toul Sleng lost their lives. Evidence to this lies throughout the prison, once a school, to recognize the atrocities of the torture that took place within its grounds.

Every room in the three-building complex brings a fresh punch to the chest. The first building houses rooms that still hold the metal bed frames prisoners slept on, some with the actual torture devices used still in tact—shackles, buckets, shovels. And on the entire first floor, a fuzzy, faded, black-and-white photograph of the mangled body that lay in the room, tortured, starved, sometimes missing a head, always a pool of blood underneath, hangs on the wall. I can’t bring myself to go to the second floor, but it’s still so surreal.

The second building is incased in faded barbwire. Some of the rooms are cell blocks separated by short brick walls, the size of an outhouse without the amenities. I can barely move standing in one. Imagining prisoners cradling themselves in the fetal position, filth all around them, I cringe. Our guide, one of the seven survivors, recalls his tale of being in them. But that still doesn’t make it real for me. I’m beginning to worry I can’t feel.

I step into the first room with boards of photograph after photograph. The leaders of the prison kept the place well-documented, almost as if they reveled in their destruction. Everywhere I turn, there is a face staring at me. A face who’s skull I might have seen in the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields we’d visited earlier that day. A face without hope. Still can’t completely grasp it, just like everything else about this strange place.

Room after room, that punch to the chest from the first building is accompanied by a stinging of the eyes. Men, women, children, starved, sometimes with swollen faces and bandages, stare at me. Sometimes they don’t stare back– their glazed eyes tell me they are just people that had died of starvation, a board across their chest with Khmer writing to mark who they were. It hurts, but I still can only gawk with my mouth open and feel sorry for these people.

It doesn’t feel right to cry all out; these aren’t my family or countrymen to grieve over. I live a privileged live back in the United States, far away from here, I’ve never had this experience and probably never will. Feeling sympathy for these people isn’t enough, but that’s all I can muster at the moment. I’m not even sure if these
are people who’s story I should be telling or photographing. Some want to move on here, others never want to forget.

But then I get to that little boy. Professor Kavoori pulls me aside and says, “Sarah, I think you need to take this picture.” He takes me back into the room I’d just left, up to one board, and shows me the child. We’re both so struck at the face of an innocent who could probably barely talk, yet is staring back at us amongst a board of adult faces. Somehow he’d gotten mixed in with them, most of the children’s pictures were separated in another section, and there were 10 of them at most.

No words come to mind. My head just swims with images of Khmer Rouge soldiers, taking children like this boy by the ankles and swinging them against the “Killing Tree” in Cheoung Ek. I’d seen the tree, but hadn’t been able to put a face to it until I saw this child. I can’t even wrap my mind around that brutality. I take a ragged breath and slowly pace alongside my professor back to the next room, where all the barriers are broken.

On another board of blank faces behind plexiglass, it stands out, much more so than even that little boy. There is no face to look at. No eyes stare back at me. Just a head. A close-up of a head, laying on the floor, still attached to its body. It’s as if someone has scooped all of the head out, like a melon, from the forehead to the chin, and just left the outer casing. Just a pool of blood on the floor and a shell of a human.

I lean against the barred window and bawl. That little boy being banged against a tree comes to life. I can see teenagers being hung on the gallows outside the window. I know those bodies being tossed indifferently into the mass graves at Cheoung Ek. I can hear the moans of prisoners, both in Toul Sleng and at the killing fields. It’s real. And unfathomable. And I can’t stop crying.

But something I can’t stop even more is this rising craving for justice. I stumble through the rest of the rooms, learning about the top leaders behind the Khmer Rouge, some in charge of Toul Sleng itself, and I share in the feelings of our guide. He wants those who did this to pay, he wants to see them suffer as he watched others suffer under them. And he wants his story to be told. As do I.

The idea of death — and the sight of it — are common here. Across from the prison, there’s a sign that reads, “After visiting Toul Sleng, come buy handmade silks!” Even on our ride to Phnom Penh, we saw a horrific accident in the middle of nowhere; nothing could be done about it really. Hospitals are too far away and police are few. It’s pervaded its way into the culture; our translator, a Cambodian himself, told the guide’s story with almost an air of pride in the fact it was the history of Cambodia he was telling.  One of our hosts said its something they see all the time, accidents in the streets, stories about people killing each other over petty things in the newspaper, and he’s become desensitized somewhat.

But I’m constantly reminded– these are atrocities of our parent’s time, of our time. Duch, the leader of Toul Sleng, was sentenced less than a year ago. This isn’t like the Holocaust where we can just read about it and think, “Oh, that was in World War II.” Or where places have been beautified in memorial; death is on display here. Skulls, bones, clothes, photographs. Unspeakable brutality is what you see– in the pictures of mangled bodies, in the rooms with torture devices used just 30 years ago, as you step over bones still in the ground at Cheoung Ek.

It makes you realize how much this country dwells on its past and wants the world to know of what happened here, to two million Cambodians and their kin. It’s the only way they know to build back a country torn apart by paranoia and absolute power.

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