Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ghastly Past Lives On

The Killing Fields. Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot. Year Zero. Kampuchea. Or is that Cambodia?

I'm the first to admit that I wasn't sure what those things really were in the context of history and consequence. I know "The Killing Fields" movie won some Oscars, the Khmer Rouge was a guerrilla-communist group and Pol Pot's name is synonymous with evil, but wasn't exactly sure why. After visiting Phnom Penh, its Tuol Sleng museum and the actual 'Killing Fields', I understand intimately and feel somewhat embarassed I wasn't more aware of what's quite probably one of the most modern occurrences of butchery and nonsense living in today's world.

I wrestled with how to write succinctly about a regime that was hobbled by ideology and wanted so pure a form of communism that they essentially killed off any smart or skilled person who might be a threat, imprisoned and tortured others who didn't buy in to agrarian slavery right away, all of which resulted in over two million deaths, and tried to erase the past by starting the calendar over at "year zero" and burning the books, clocks, currency and buildings that stood for it...~> read more

 and gave up.

Here's just a brief historical reference: the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot who was known as "Brother Number One" in proletariat-speak, took over Cambodia after it faltered from instability between the Indochina and Vietnam wars in 1975. They had a strong following of young comrades who'd suffered during this time at the hands of the Vietnamese, US, British, French and monarchy, and they joined up in fatigues and black caps to glorify the country through Communism. Overnight, families and lives were broken and sent off to till the rice fields and support the newly-named Kampuchea and its Khmer Rouge totalitarianism. Or else...

Or else they'd end up in the Tuol Sleng prison where they were tortured brutally and utlimately executed grotesquely, with no regard for human life in the dead-dirt pits of The Killing Fields. Men, women, children and infants (yes babies -- who were sometimes thrown up in the air only to be shot dead by guards with rifles) were instantly shipped off to Tuol Sleng if suspected of being a threat the Khmer Rouge, or if merely related to someone who was. Cambodians were imprisoned for singing old, pre-Khmer Rouge songs and killed for maintaining relationships with non-approved comrades. Indeed, it was that random, terrifying, paranoid and senseless. The Khmer Rouge got so caught up in its own doctrine and paranoia that they beat...in every bloody sense of the word...false confessions and accusations out of people, perhaps if only to justify their own fears and cause.

Walking around Tuol Sleng, which was once a secondary school, you see the architecture of classrooms and the remnants of torture. A very bizarre irony. School rooms are filled with metal leg schackles and walled into human-sized cells with primitive brick and mortar, and the playground has various torment tools, such as a hanging platform, water drowning barrels and whipping posts next to horizontal bars. It's quiet and still, and an eerie sense of death and history hangs over it even though sunlight filters into the rooms and cells. Just when you're not sure if this could all be real, you enter a room containing hundreds upon hundreds of black and white photographs and come face to face with the victims. And I say victims, because they don't deserve the word 'inmate' -- none of them did anything wrong. A few might have not bought into the twisted politica dogma of the Khmer Rouge, but none committed a real crime, and many were innocently accused by others trying to save their own lives and end the recurring torture.

Looking at, gasping, looking away, and then looking back at these photos, many of which were laid out in side-by-side "before and after" epitaphs which left little to the imagination, was difficult. There are a lot of common adjectives I could use, but I'm sure most of you have visited somewhere like this...a place that kicks you in the gut and leaves you speechless with the question of "How did this ever happen?"

What kicked me in the gut and the brain harder, however, was something completely unexpected. Seeing the primitive contraptions at Tuol Sleng used for "water boarding", that gruesome technique that simulates a feeling of drowning for the victim and hence triggers some form of confession was eerily familiar. And then I realized why. The Khmer Rouge used and the United States is still using the same technique of torture and that stopped me sick in my sandals.

It just couldn't be...but it was. I remember the news before I left, and we've kept up a little while we've been away online and with foreign news periodicals. You don't forget a detailed explanation of not at all sporting term "waterboarding", nor shy away from thinking about the ramifications when your country and the word "torture" are used in the same breath. Even typing this now seems risky, as I'm sure I sound like some amnesty freak who doesn't love her country...but it's not that. I'm proud to be American and traveling does more than most things to raise one's level of patriotism and gratitude. Trust me. But when traveling, you encounter the unexpected -- in both feelings and experiences.

And at Tuol Sleng I did. I was chilled despite the searing heat to see graphic photos and the ugly tools of torture, up close and personal, from Cambodia's torrid past. Walking by the piles of unlabeled bones which serve monument and warning to a regime of paranoia, fear and unthinking doctrine, you want to believe that kind of disregard for human life doesn't go unnoticed and unlearned. Yet to know in some semblance, those same tools of torture alive today...entering into my own country's history...even when there is so much history to learn from and judge left me puzzled, disarmed, bereft. Less proud.

It's clear that no one, from any country, believes the reign of the Khmer Rouge and its practices were good or productive. Yet, seeing the remains of torture and knowing it's allowed by the Oval Office and happening to humans at Guantanamo Bay and possbly other places today under the auspices of national security, is confusing. Even if the motivation is different, I find a parity in technique and desire between the two governments -- one that's widely believed to be evil and the other which is my own -- and it doesn't settle well.

If we learn anything from history, it should be that there are boundaries between right and wrong that are impenetrable and inexcusable. Similar to freedom and democracy, which many Americans including its forefathers and current president, believe to be incontrovertible rights. So where does that leave waterboarding and torture? I'm uncertain, but my US passport feels perceptibly heavier after Tuol Sleng...a bit like my conscience.



Anonymous Mommy Moore said...

Wow, Tiffany and Andy, what a moving, strong story you have written! Yes, I know of Cambodia, and yes I read/heard some about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but wow, this was so ghastly and encompassed SO MANY innocent people. How can this happen? I've read about torture at G. Bay, but had no idea what really went on. I almost stopped reading your story because it was so "heavy," yet I couldn't quit.

3:19 AM  

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