Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Depressingest Day

This is not a cheerful post. The faint-of-heart may wish to skip it and read about happy cute children, tomorrow.

The next day I come down to the breakfast room at 6:30, when breakfast is scheduled to start, but it's not open yet. I go out into the lobby to find out if there is a problem and before I can say anything some members of my group say, "You haven't heard?" Uh, heard what? They gesture at the TV and tell me: hundreds of people were killed and injured last night during the fireworks.

The bridge that I saw night before last and realized must go over the river I was looking for was the site of last night's carnage. There's an island in the river, a festival site, and the police were trying to set it up so there was one bridge to the island and one bridge from the island, but policing, as I've unintentionally documented, is stretched thin and not in your face. I think in a culture that was so recently so devastated by brutal police action, it's important for the police to not be party killers. People started going both ways on both bridges, causing a human traffic jam, like the one I was in the night before. All it takes at that point is for someone to faint or otherwise fall and people to push over them and trip, and you have a pile-up and people trampled. Tragically the police tried to clear the logjam with water cannons, while people were trying to escape by grabbing onto the electrical wires overhead, leading to electrocution as another cause of injury. I see by this article (I know it's from an unorthodox source, but it gives most of the other information as I know it) that officials deny electrocutions, so that is not confirmed. Some people jumped off the bridge to escape and were injured or drowned that way. This Guardian article has an interview implying that some people may have drowned without realizing they could stand up in the shallow river.

It's so Third World. You hear some kind of news report like this at least every year. Hundreds of people killed in a firetrap building or a ferryboat sinking. We gasp and murmur about how it wouldn't happen here because we have safety standards, then the news moves on to the stock market report or a by-election in Sudbury. But now it is here. The TV is tuned to a local station, showing the grisly remains on the bridge after surging crowds trampled some people and others were electrocuted by overhead wiring while trying to escape. Desk staff switch the TV station to CNN in English for the foreigners. CNN moves on to catalogue other mass deaths at public events and we switch back to the Khmer station. This is footage from last night showing people being carried away from the scene, dangling by their arms and legs. Local television live coverage shows some close-ups of the bodies laid out on the ground like so many items in the lost & found, as relatives walk between the rows, looking for missing loved ones. The customs of what media show are different here. In Canada they would take some footage of the shoes, clothing and souvenirs that still litter the bridge, and interview a bereaved family. Here we see the actual victims of trampling and suffocation. Another detail that struck me from the English language newspaper story is the actions of bystanders trying to help. It said that they placed pieces of cardboard over the faces of people who were obviously dead, and used pieces of cardboard to fan those they felt might be alive. In Canada it would have been jackets or blankets. The generic thing that an untrained or unequipped person does in a first aid situation in Canada is to cover the victim with a blanket or jacket to keep them warm. I wonder how many first aid manuals have that advice, oblivious to the fact that the opposite may be called for.

The Prime Minister is announcing a national day of mourning. After breakfast I Google for local mourning customs and then change into a white shirt, it's a pilot shirt, the only white I have.

We get on a bus and go to the Tabitha headquarters to be briefed on the project. We go in through the store, upstairs past all kinds of brightly coloured silk items and up to the roof where chairs are arranged for us under a cardboard awning. Some women are sitting up there working on handicrafts. Someone hands out bottles of water for us and Nari introduces herself. Jean, the founder and head of Tabitha is not here because she is in hospital. She would normally give this briefing. Nari is Khmer and apologizes in advance for her imperfect grammar and accent, but is perfectly understandable throughout.

There have been 1053 houses built this year under Tabitha's auspices. I don't know how many have been by clumsy foreigners and how many by local contractors. She teaches us and has us practice a formal Khmer greeting jum reap sur and good-bye jum reap lea. Ground rules include a strict admonition not to touch children: the parents may think we want to take them, and may actually offer them over, producing bad feelings all around when we reject them. We must not cry out or show pain or anger if we are injured during the building. It's bad luck for the house. Smile, walk away, and seek first aid at a distance. There will be a latrine for our use. Bring toilet paper. Eat salty food for breakfast on the morning of the build and be sure to drink at least eight bottles of water--that's four litres--during the day. Take a water break every twenty minutes. Wear sunscreen. Tabitha will have bread and water for us, it's up to us to buy sandwich fillings if we want them. (We want, and already have a committee organized to do that). Do not leave food behind: the villagers don't know how to eat cheese and butter and other foods that we consider normal. There will be a table provided for us to put our personal belongings, where they will be safe. Don't stash things elsewhere in the village, because they can't vouch for things not being touched there. Get permission to take photographs. No gifts for anyone, unless we have the same for everyone in the village. The Cambodians will finish up at the end of the day if we are unable to.

Today we have some mandatory sightseeing so that we understand the context of Cambodia's situation, and Nari is going to send us off with her personal story. In 1975 when the Khmer Rouge marched into the city to overthrow the government, people welcomed them, believing that this would mean the end of the civil war and the US bombing attacks. The army announced that the city was to be evacuated immediately because of an imminent attack. Nari's family took very little, both because of the short notice and because they were told it was to be a three day evacuation. She was gone for three years eight months and twenty days. During that time, young Nari was immediately separated from her parents, and there was no school, market, banks or hospitals. They had to work from four a.m. until nine p.m. in the rice fields then walk back to their camp. Sometimes soldiers came in the night with flashlights to take people away for interrogation. If you answered their questions properly you were okay, but the interrogation might take until four a.m., meaning no sleep before you had to go back to work. As she tells it, it's almost as if she's willing to accept those working hours, even willing to endure interrogation, but that stealing her sleep is the last straw. She's clearly still angry at that. She uses the two syllables "Pol Pot" to refer to the whole episode. "In Pol Pot" means "during the Pol Pot regime" and "the atrocities perpetuated by Pol Pot" and anything else associated with that time.

In 1979 she was allowed to leave the camp and went straight back to Phnom Penh to find her parents. She went to S21, where our tour group will be going next, when the blood was still fresh on the floor to look at mugshots. Nari was the only survivor of her whole family. She still fears the night. They have stolen her sleep permanently, not just for those almost four years.

She says that Tabitha is not about giving people things, but getting people who have become passive from occupation and abuse to do things for themselves. She describes the first time that she was sent to greet an arriving build group at the airport. She didn't speak English, she wasn't used to foreigners or strangers, but she was just told to go. The anger at that is still there, too, but she says she went, with a sign and found the group, and so on from there. I assume from the fact that she is giving a briefing normally made by the head of the organization that she is a senior administrator, but she doesn't have any more airs about it than the women who sit on the floor behind her, occasionally checking us out as they work.

She thanks us, and we thank her, and offer her the formal goodbye that she taught us. We have a few minutes to shop in the store before we go, buying beautiful handmade silk things at factory polyester prices. I buy Christmas presents. And how about a new handbag to go with those shoes? We hang onto those colourful pieces of silk, because they are the bright spots in a pretty grim day.

We get back on the bus and stop at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Yeah, it's going to be that kind of day. This is a former high school in an urban area, but when the Khmer Rouge closed all the schools and evacuated everyone from urban areas, they converted it into Security Office 21, a detention and torture centre. Everyone who had an education, a profession, spoke a foreign language, or even who wore glasses was a suspect. Our polite tour guide, probably born more than ten years after S21 closed down, recites graphic details of the meaning of each room and artifact without a hint of sensationalism. It's not as if he's trying to shock us, definitely not to be dramatic. More like he's trying to convince us that these atrocities really happened, and convince us in the most scientific manner possible. Later I read the brochure I was given at the beginning of the tour and see that that is precisely what they are doing. The mandate of the museum is to collect and preserve evidence, for eventual trials, or to prevent people from denying it happened. The brochure says, "preventing new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere else on Earth," but I know that there's no amount of documentation that will prevent the next systematic genocide.

This might mean no laughing or no smiling. It didn't matter, as I had no urge to do either.

I don't really want to write about what went on at S21, but I didn't include details in yesterday's history post, so I suppose I have to. We toured first through the torture rooms, furnished with iron bedframes with shackles and various everyday implements made sinister by their presence here. It is still easy to see that the rooms are ordinary classrooms divided in half with brick walls, but most classrooms do not have such dark stains on the checkered tiles. They also put glass in the windows to minimize the screams escaping the facility. When the Vietnamese took the city in 1979 the guards and prisoners were all gone with the exception of fourteen decomposed murder victims still chained to these beds. I remember one of my group members saying, "They killed him with a shovel, and left the shovel." The guide was not making remarks that specific, but rather presenting the evidence and allowing us to draw the conclusions. One of the fourteen was female, and when we are in the room where she was found he says there is no way to know what torture methods were used on which prisoner, but that there was a mosquito net in this room, and not in others, and they would not have used mosquito nets for the benefit of naked prisoners. Each room contains a black and white photograph of what it looked like when it was found. Other than removal of filth and human remains, the rooms are pretty much as they were. I can't imagine being a prisoner. I can only just put myself in the shoes of the people who discovered the facility, going from room to room discovering and documenting what they found before they burned the corpses.

He shows us a chair that looks like an implement of torture, but is actually just the chair where prisoners were photographed. Many of the mugshots are displayed around the walls. They look at us, the captors, with fear, resignation, confusion, defiance. They're all individuals. One of them has a t-shirt with cute little bare footprints across it. I think I had one like that in 1979. Some of the prisoners are children. Some women hold babies. In the early pictures the prisoners hold simple numbers. In later ones they have more elaborate mugshot data with the date of arrest and prisoner number. The guide insists on showing us the range of numbers on a particular day, proving that there were sometimes hundreds of arrests a day. If someone was arrested, they took their whole family, even children, to avoid retribution later. If a prisoner died during torture, the guard was suspected of colluding to keep their secrets, and also arrested. Perhaps that is part of how Cambodia is not consumed by hate. It wasn't really one group of people doing this to another. It was a horrible epidemic that swept people into doing and having done horrible things.

While they were not being tortured, prisoners were housed either in individual cells, each 80 cm by 200 cm, tiny bricked sections of a classroom, or upstairs in unconverted classrooms, all shackled together in rows by the feet. He shows us the shackles, a photo, and a painting by a survivor. Approximately 20,000 people, including children, came through this facility. There were seven people known to be released alive. One of them was the founding curator of this museum and still works to train the tour guides. I can't even stand to tell you all the details of my visit, and this guy re-lives it for the guides. I can't really listen to it all. Fortunately, it's a little bit of work to understand the guide's accent, so after I have had enough I stop making that effort and just look at the pictures. Every once in a while a phrase filters though and I hear, "and that is how they killed the babies" while being aware that the words "sharp stick" are still in my mental buffer.

Above: A view of one of the individual cells. The black metal pieces have been added by the museum to prevent the poor brickwork from collapsing. Below: A room where the cells have been removed, but marks on the floor show the cell size relative to the people standing on it.

Part of what made it so horrific was that it was a high school. Everyone has high schools. Movies tend to make torture facilities some dark dank dungeon or high tech sterile room. It's more insidious for the imagination to make it a high school, because you're going to see those every day. The construction materials for the conversion are the same kind of bricks we see every day in construction projects all over the city. This piece of apparatus was originally used for the kids to do gymnastics. They repurposed it. It's not a gallows: executions were not conducted here.

In another room there are untidy shelves overflowing with skulls. There used to be a map of the country made out of skulls here, but they moved it to another museum. I feel uncomfortable not about the presence of human body parts, but because I understand that Buddhists believe that the body must be treated with respect in order for the soul to be at peace. Even without Buddhist beliefs, it seems a little callous. If prisoners were still alive after about four months in this facility, once they had confessed to being spies for the KGB and CIA (even though they'd probably never heard of either entity), they were blindfolded and removed in a truck. We'll follow the path of those trucks later. First, a light lunch! Yeah, who scheduled this?

We don't think we're going to want to eat anything, but we do. I guess it's a way to confirm that we're alive and healthy. "So what do you think, Aviatrix?" asks someone. There's more than one thing to think about this? We're a nasty species.

The bus ride takes us out to a more rural area and then stops in front of a gate where we pay a small admission fee and break into groups for another guided tour. A sign requests that we remove our shoes at the memorial, and observe five minutes of silence out of respect for the dead. The area inside the gate is an uneven field with grass growing on it, a few small buildings, and an ornate tower at one side. This is a Killing Field. No euphemism or hyperbole here. It's a field, and it was used for killing. The guide shows us where the trucks parked and unloaded the prisoners after S21 was done with them. He says that the prisoners didn't do any work here, were simply led to the edge of a hole, killed and buried. I suspect that it wasn't the guards who dug the holes, though.

The tower is called a stupa, and is a traditional style of memorial to revered people. This one is constructed in multiple levels, with victims' clothing displayed on the lowest, several layers of skulls, then other bones on higher levels. The guide details the types of bones on each level, no doubt translating a solemn catalogue of bone names from Khmer, and he probably deliberately chose colloquial over latin names for most of them, but it does sound like the song about what bone is connected to what bone. There are over 8900 skulls in the stupa, along with a roughly corresponding number of other disconnected bones. He takes us up to the stupa and I take off my hat and shoes to walk around the interior in silence. The skulls are catalogued in sets: "juvenile males under 15" "mature females 41-60" "senile male over 60." The letters L, R and N at the end of a word in the local accent is pronounced very subtly. "Senile" and "senior" probably sound identical. When I have completed the five minute silence, my tour group is nowhere in sight. I wander off in search of them, picking up on the periphery of other tours, people not in my group, and some in languages I don't know. I linger, pretending to read a sign while listening to other people's guides. They're mostly talking about the ways prisoners were executed. You'd think they'd have it down to an assembly line procedure but this guy is pointing out the sharpness of a particular kind of palm frond, which can be used to slit people's throats, and that guy is talking about smashing heads, while the other guy is describing the versatility of DDT. It's a lethal agent and a deodorizer. They didn't shoot prisoners because bullets are expensive and noisy, compared to naturally sharpened palm fronds and shovels. I find my tour group coming back the other way, at a pit where they recovered I think it was 66 headless corpses wearing Khmer Rouge uniforms. Maybe it was 166. Sufficient to make it clear that no one was safe. This blog entry includes enough photos to give you a virtual walkthrough of the site. Don't miss the baby head-smashing tree.

There's a film inside another building, another hats off, shoes off site. I notice female Muslim visitors who do not remove their headgear. It's interesting how one culture's respect is another's disrespect. You probably would be frowned on for entering the Washington Monument barefoot, and I've been cautioned to wear a hat to attend a religious ceremony before. Even in religions as close as Judaism and Christianity men have opposite requirements for head coverings in a place of worship. I'm guessing any conflict between hat removal and headscarf wearing has been resolved during a thousand years of a Muslim minority in Khmer territory. The movie interviews someone who lived near here, and who came back home in 1979 to see new buildings and tools at what used to be a Chinese graveyard, and didn't know why. There were nine foreigners killed here. European foreigners, I think they mean. They were journalists. I wonder how long they held onto hope of filing a story about this place. The museum refers to a "sealed" tower, but as you can see the walls have been slid open in places so you could reach out and touch the skulls if curiosity outweighed respect. I asked about what became of the Chinese people who had once been buried here. The guide said that a few bodies were found who had died of natural causes, but didn't say if there had been an official relocation.

Here we see the garb of people inspired by a charismatic young communist revolutionary about whom they knew little. And on the left, the uniform of the Khmer Rouge.

I have two consolations today. The first is that the stupa is dedicated as a measure of proper respect to all those killed by the regime, soothing my concern for the effect of casually handled skulls on the eternal souls of the dead. The second is that only seven people had to live very long with memories of this place.

Back on the bus, there are kids outside the windows. Someone realizes that they are asking for empty water bottles, and tosses them one. It's on the other side of the bus, so I can't see the kids, just the people tossing them out the window. Someone cheers that the littlest girl got a bottle. "That's sadly like feeding ducks," I say. You know how you always try to get a big piece to the shy duck at the back? And how the mean duck always chases it down and takes it away. Apparently one of the girls knocked down the girl and took her bottle. Later the bottle throwers will be chastised for disobeying the "give nothing to anyone" rule. I suppose the kids fighting over the bottles were demonstrated proof that it just leads to strife. And I'm told one kid had a big wad of dollar bills from begging, too. The kids were playing and dancing until they saw the tourists, then they all put on their sad faces to come and beg. They should be in school, learning a real trade.

We go home and have supper. As I watch people in the street and in the café I see them, and I also see their little skulls. Human skulls are quite small, really. A lot of the face is flesh, the back of the head hair and neck muscle.

The makeshift patient transport above was recorded by a photographer who was in Cambodia in 2008. There's no Cambodian who has worked in hospitals for forty years, and no one who has been locally trained by someone who was. They had nothing and had to make it all up from scratch, because almost every doctor in the country was killed in the Khmer Rouge purge. Last night there must have been a terrible feeling of helplessness among emergency workers, and everyone involved. I understand that many of the dead were removed from the bridge alive, but that the hospital infrastructure was so overwhelmed by all the casualties, they were releasing bodies directly to families without them being registered as deaths.


nec Timide said...

One of the duties of those who would hope to prevent, or at least reduce, such evil excess is to resolutely learn of and remember these events. It was very good of you and your group to respecfully attend those sites. Thank you for taking us along.

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Trix:

I echo n.T.'s thanks. We are reminded again of the banality of evil.

May tomorrow bring us your look toward a more hopeful future for these gentle people.



DeAnn said...

Wow. Thank you for writing this piece ... It must have been difficult to see this ... to express this. To read it feels like it bruises my soul. I will think of you, your group of journeyers, and those souls in residence here tonight when I pray.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this, unpleasant as it is, with us. These things absolutely must be told and remembered.


Arf said...

I appreciate that you have written this. Spreading the word about genocide is one the most important things that one can do to help prevent them in the future, even when it seems inevitable that something like this will happen again.

Aviatrix said...

Some pictures from the day of mourning.

Remarkable what a sense of familiarity I have of something that was so recently so strange.

Anonymous said...

Maybe, just maybe, such open display of the work of the Khmer Rouge will prevent it from happening again in Cambodia.
Hide the past, distort it, and you're bound to repeat it.

Commercial items with the face of Che always make me chuckle.
Both at the idiocy of the people buying them (idiots for either thinking Che had the right idea or for not knowing who and what he was at all) and at the brilliance of businesses making money from his legacy when Che himself was a diehard communist who would turn around in his grave if he knew his face was sold for Yankee dollars.

BTW, IMO those Muslims (or at least some of them) are probably deliberately insulting the Budhists by not removing their head covering, the Budhists too polite to be openly insulted by it.

coreydotcom said...

@Aviatrix: it reminds me of talking to campaneros in Colombia. While us "white people" were enjoying the natural beauty of the country, there was/is still a lot of turmoil in the countryside - Colombia has one of the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Living in Canada, sleeping in a warm bed everynight, eating 2-3 meals a day (+ snacks), we very seldom stop and really realize how messed up the world is. Thanks for this piece.

@anonymous: I do not pretend to be a Che expert but I agree - he wasn't the angel everyone makes him out to be - re: his time in Africa (amongst other things). Before I knew anything about him I (I knew he was a die-hard communist) I found it funny as well how people were profiting from his image - he would indeed be turning in his grave if he knew.

Good day everyone.

Sarah said...

Thanks for writing. This was not a fun post ( an understatement ), but I learned something, both about the "fields", and what happened in Phnom Penh that night.