Monday, August 03, 2009

Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields: A morning basking in past brutalities

I've been spending more time travelling than blogging, lately. I should be staying put here in Singapore, for a while anyway, but for now I'm going to use this space to regurgitate some of what I've seen.

It's not all interesting, but some of it is. Back in June I took a trip to Cambodia. I was told before I left that Cambodia is a place where things rarely go according to plan. Even though I had no firm plans going in, I still found this to be the case.

The first part of my trip, in which I play "genocide tourist", can be summed up here. Read that for more explanation about the material below.

The rest of (this part of) the trip will be told through pictures (and some text):

This is the inside of one of the classrooms-turned-torture chambers at Toul Sleng prison (S-21). Hard to imagine what unspeakable acts happened to poor souls shackled to that metal bed, tortured into unconsciousness. Outside this room is a set of tall wooden poles. It's like a gallows but without the mercy of death. Prisoners would be yanked off the ground by their arms, behind their backs not over their head. Once the prisoner passed out from the pain, he would be lowered to the ground where his head would be shoved in a cauldron of rancid water, often contaning human waste, to be shocked back into consciousness.

These are some of the thousands of pictures of condemned inmates. The utterly terrified look of the guy on the bottom left pretty much sums up how I think I'd feel if in their position.

These are some paintings by Vann Nath, one of the 10 or fewer prisoners to survive out of the 15,000 or so detained at the prison (see some more of his paintings here, depicting the varieties of torture and murder inflicted at Tuol Sleng). Vann Nath recently testified at the ongoing genocide tribunal. Pay particular attention to the painting on the right (hint, note the water can)...

Look familiar? Looks an awful lot like waterboarding to me. That means the tactics the US has employed in the "war on terror" to extract information are comparable to the brutalities favored by the Khmer Rouge. Let it be said, indisputably: waterboarding is torture.

Part of what makes Tuol Sleng so chilling is its dirt and grittiness. This is not a Disneyland ride. I have no official confirmation, but if those aren't blood stains underneath where there were once shackles and countless suffering prisoners, I have no idea what they are.

In case anyone had the idea to plunge off the third floor of the cell block to end with a quick and relatively honorable death, three-storey sheets of barbed wire were stretched across the front of the building. That's the courtyard in front.

Finally, this is not at Tuol Sleng but the "Killing Fields", which likely more people have heard of. It's where most Tuol Sleng prisoners were hauled and finally executed, usually with a club to save bullets. The fields themselves, formerly an orchard, are not much to look at. Some exhumed mass graves, now grassy ditches scarring the earth. A lot of skulls too. It's all about the vibe there, just dwelling for a moment on the unspeakable acts and thoughtless murder committed just 30 years earlier on that very spot. The thing that represents this perversion of nature more than anything else is above: the killing tree. Guards would bash the heads of children against the base of the trunk and dispose of them that way. This glorious, benevolent entity twisted and turned into a tool of destruction ... it really just gets me, eats at my conception of nature. I sat in the tree's shade and pondered this paradox. It still haunts me.

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