Sunday, January 9, 2011

Visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Happy 2011, everyone!

            I apologize for failing to update this blog. I have not even finished my travel stories yet! No excuses, but it is really hard to find time when you are busy and the slow internet does not give me any incentive to upload anything. But, I promised to post a blog about what I have done recently so that I will.

In honoring Genocide Day this past Friday, I went to honor my great uncle (my grandma’s younger brother) by visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I went with my two uncles, who have been living in Phnom Penh for years, but have never visited the place. I was very surprised to hear that, but the youth here is either apathetic or does not want to revisit that part of Cambodian history because it is so sad for them. It didn’t matter to me so I pulled them along with me because it is very important that they hear the stories as a lesson learned so that it never happens again.

I live pretty close to the place—only about 6 blocks away. The place was filled with people; both Cambodians and foreigners. Cambodians get in free of charge, which is good because the general population is not wealthy (an understatement) and it removes the financial excuse to not visit the museum. I wanted to find my great uncle’s name, but their documentation center or library was closed. Perhaps, I went too late at 3 p.m. I will have to venture there another time. His name spelled in English is NHEM, Yanath. I kept his name alive in my heart and mind while I was there. I wondered what he went through as I was listening to the horrendous stories.

I decided to hire a tour guide. I thought it would be worth the history lesson even if I have read about most of it already. I also wanted to support the tour guide so that people like him continue to work as the disseminators of information. It was an hour-long tour that began with a brief history lesson of the Khmer Rouge era—something that you can read in the introduction of every book ever written about that time. Before entering the once converted-school-into-a-prison/torture center, we met with an old man sitting outside the place. His name is Mr. Chum Mey. He is one of the seven survivors of the place. He was a repair man at the time for the Khmer Rouge. His family was all killed there and now he is the Director of the Victims Association in Cambodia. I think I will invite him to coffee one day and just have a talk with him.

Then, we began the real tour, entering each prison room. In each room, there is a picture of the victim that was tortured and quickly killed after they received news about the Vietnamese liberating Cambodia or “invading” in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge. The 14 victims are still unknown; the Khmer Rouge smashed some of the faces so hard with a dirt shovel that they were unrecognizable. They were buried by the Vietnamese soldiers in the courtyard. Their bodies remained there today with a white coffin-shaped monument on top of their graves. Each room had a different story with different instruments used as killing devices. The prisoners were all tied to a metal bed and some were tortured 2-3 times (or more) a day for months before they were killed. The Khmer Rouge did not waste any bullets on them. They would either hit the back of their heads with something hard or cut their throats. They treated the prisoners like animals. The victims were allowed to bathe once or twice a week if they were lucky. They would hold up to 50-60 victims in a classroom before extracting information from them in isolated rooms and when they gave them a shower, they would just water them from the window with a hose as if they were pigs. There are tons of tortuous stories, but I won’t go through them all because they either anger me or make me very sad. For some reason, the stories are more chilling when I hear it in Khmer. Perhaps, it is because I have never heard of these combinations of horrifying words spoken in the Cambodian language.  One of the torture methods was to water board the prisoners in filthy, urine and feces. Another was to pull out the nails of victims and pour rubbing alcohol on them. If I am correct, (because there were so many stories) Mr. Chum Mey does not have any nails.  The females were placed upstairs and raped by the guys until the rapists had enough and then, they were killed. Whole families were killed there—father, mother, children…even infants. I believe the number of children murdered there was around 130, if I am correct. I know it was more than a hundred children. 

I could not help, but feel a deep anger and towards who? Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge consisted of Cambodian people. Cambodians were killing Cambodians. A Cambodian man could kill an innocent Cambodian infant. I cannot accept any reasons from the perpetrators for killing. They said that they were just “taking orders” from the top and it was either to kill or be killed. Well, I swear that I would rather be tortured or killed than to kill other people and usually, you wouldn’t just kill one person, but some people had killed more than 40 and that’s a low number. I also get resentful because of what I see in Cambodian society today. I am not allowed to name them. Anyways, the tour guide expressed the exact same feelings as I did, which made me feel relieved because I feel so guilty having these feelings about Cambodians (the people before). How could we do this to our own countrymen? And classism still exists in Cambodia today! But my hot, shooting temper is always quickly put out by my sympathy for the current poor Cambodians.

The tour finished and I recorded it on my Flip Mini camera. I continued walking around the area, but I quickly wanted to leave because my presence there only made me continuously run the haunting stories repeatedly in my head. Even now, I am still adversely affected by them. I still cry today. I wish it never happened. They killed off nearly all our intellectual, artistic, religious, creative, and academic people in society, leaving Cambodia with an uneducated, poor mass. I wish Cambodians are still not so poor today, but Cambodia is doing much better. I hope we build up a better society. But these moments of anger are okay. Not only are they quickly disperse anyways, but that are evidence of the fact that I am not comfortable with what happened and what is going on today. I believe staying still, not feeling anything is dangerous. We should dare to seek. Like Alexander Hinton said, “If we do not seek to analyze genocide, then it becomes a floating signifier of evil, appropriated at will for moral condemnation or contained in ways that make us feel more comfortable.”

P.S. Those that gave me addresses so that I could write to them, if you are writing me back, please let me know because I no longer work for the address that I posted on the envelope. However, I can still have my friends who still work there retrieve mail for me, but you have to let me know if you have written me!

A Monk at the Tuol Sleng Gencoide Museum

 I didn't take a lot of picture because I wanted to listen to the tour guide and I honestly did not want pictures of torture rooms with blood stills stained on the floor on my camera. It really haunts me.

One of the visitors starting their history lessons early :)