The first thing you notice is the haze. It is thick enough to transform the sky into a soft lens through which the reddening sun descends over the
. Hundreds of people clamber onto a mountaintop structure at the Angkor Wat complex to view this spectacle every day. The sun descends into the river like a languorous flatboat, disappearing from view before it reaches the horizon. Watching the sun descend is an awe-inspiring spectacle, but the grand finale is tantalizingly shrouded from view. Mekong River
photo: Frederick Noroha
Sunset over the
Mekong River is a metaphor for . This country’s brilliant but turbulent history is gradually coming to light through the haze of time, but the finale is shrouded in questions. This is a land of kings and the Khmer Rouge, a place in which visions of a brighter future have led to both splendor and savagery. Cambodia is coming to grips with both. Cambodia
Tuol Sleng Prison, or S-21, is a former high school nestled among the row buildings and Humphrey Bogart shutters of
. Phnom Penh
It is the crucible of a vision that went horribly awry, the place where the Khmer Rouge brought all the “counterrevolutionaries” and the innocents who allegedly didn’t share their vision of an egalitarian peasant society.
To walk into S-21 is to be reminded that it is part of very recent history. Victims of land mines, robbed for life of their mobility by the paraphernalia of war, cluster around the front gate of S-21; and only the most callous of souls could fail to part with a few riel to ease their suffering in some small way. Tour guides are available at S-21. They are as patient and attentive as the tuk-tuk drivers who take visitors on bone-jarring trips around
. They recount the atrocities that were committed at S-21 with what can only be described as professionalism. It is strangely comforting to hear their factual accounts of the ordeals of the prisoners who unwillingly made their homes here, comforting in the sense that facts and honesty are the best palliatives for pain. And this was a place of unimaginable pain from the moment the prisoners arrived. Phnom Penh
The visitor to S-21 is shown pictures of new arrivals with numbers safety-pinned to their chests. It is impossible not to cringe when viewing these photographs and to wonder what sort of zeal or “patriotic” fervor could lead one human being to cause so much suffering in another. But the pictures only tell part of the story. The leg irons that kept the inmates shackled like doomed cattle still litter the cold concrete of the cells. Those hard, unforgiving floors provided the bedding for the inmates, who slept in their underwear while shackled to the wall or to iron bars and were served two spoonfuls of weak porridge every day.
Prison life at S-21 had an eerie regularity. Prisoners were tortured twice a day. How frustrating it must have been for the inmates to gaze over the wall at the city as they were walked to the post where they were hung upside down. When they passed out, their heads were dipped in filth so putrid it woke them out of unconsciousness. After their ordeals they returned to their cells, which did not always provide any respite from torture, as the still-visible blood stains silently attest.
S-21 is a grim place; and yet, there is a sense of peace about it, a peace perhaps born of its origins as a high school but more likely arising out of the reverent spirit that pervades it. S-21 is a shrine to the innocents, the powerless folk who are simultaneously history’s victims and its soul. About 17,000 people entered S-21. Eight are known to have survived.
There is no peace at the Choeung Ek Killing Field, located several kilometers from S-21.
Here the visitor is shown a tree where the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide were killed with makeshift weapons while a loudspeaker blared music to cover their screams and where children were bashed to death against the trunk for sport.
The Killing Field is pock-marked with mass graves that stand empty, dug up like so many craters of the moon.
At the center of Choeung Ek stands a commemorative stupa that serves as the final resting place for so many, its gilded spires reaching to the sky as if to ask why.
These are disturbing images, to be sure. It is a testament to the resilience of the Cambodian people that they are confronting this period of their history so forthrightly.
is a young country with an ancient history. According to the World Factbook, its median age is 22.9 years. Most Cambodians know the Khmer Rouge only as history, not as part of their own lives. But history dies hard. It is still on the lips and in the memories of older Cambodians who, like the stupa at Choeung Ek, reach out and ask why. Younger Cambodians are following their lead. Cambodia
It is that resilience that lingers in the memory of the visitor and that buoys Cambodia toward a future filled with hope. The essence of Cambodia is that it is rooted in place. The dominant image on its flag, for example, is Angkor Wat; and its 500 riel note is adorned with the images of both Angkor Wat and a modern bridge. This is a country that draws its strength from places rather than abstractions, in contrast to the United States, for example, which is rooted in an idea. Norman Rockwell paintings capture the essence of the American spirit: a man rising to a point of order at a town meeting, a woman uncovering a turkey at the Thanksgiving table, a soldier returning home from war. Angkor Wat captures the essence of Cambodia: regal splendor in the forest and a sense that it is possible to build something that will endure for generations to come.
Given that Cambodia is rooted in place, it is, perhaps, significant that Angkor Wat faces west, toward the sunset. Is it possible that somewhere in the haze that shrouds the future Cambodians will be able to glimpse the lasting peace they deserve?