This past weekend I visited the main sites of memory from the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s—the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh and the Choeung Ek extermination site just outside the city. For anyone who has spent as much time as I have teaching about the Holocaust of European Jewry, I thought I already knew a lot, maybe even too much, about mankind’s capacity for inhumanity. These two sites obliterated my comfortable assumptions.
Compared to the often lavishly funded memorials to the Holocaust in the United States and in Europe, Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are decaying and desperate for support for preservation and access. Ironically, to me at least, the condition of each site simply reinforced the power of their narratives. There are no interactive exhibits, not climate-controlled display cases here. Just piles of skulls in a memorial stupa, holes in the ground where mass graves once were, and a few scattered signs explaining the geography of mass murder at Choeung Ek. And at Tuol Sleng the entire facility is open to the elements and the staff is constantly fighting off squatters—part of the almost 1 million people who have moved to Phnom Penh since 2000—who try to move into the grounds of the former high school.
[After I wrote this post in draft form, one of my contacts here pointed out to me that last April a Japanese firm was awarded a 30-year concession to develop Choeung Ek as a tourist site. The good news is that the site desperately needs funds that the Cambodian government doesn’t have. The bad news is that it is destined to turn into a tourist trap. How to balance the two…]
Each site is stark in its own way. To get to Choeung Ek I took a tuk tuk (a motorbike propelled carriage) for the 13 km ride out to the site. Along the way we passed through the blooming capitalism of a mega-city in the making. Every inch of roadside space was taken up by some sort of stall, business, or squatter’s shanty, but just behind the noise and the grime, new housing estates were going up—housing that will be forever too expensive for those toiling at the roadside.
Once we broke free of the city, the countryside was just as stark—a scattering of small farms and businesses, all covered in dust because this is the dry (and hot) season in Cambodia. At one point on a detour for a paving crew we picked up four hitchhikers, ranging in age from 5 to 7, who knew their business well. They mugged for my camera and then shyly asked for money, which, of course, I gave them. When we arrived at Choeung Ek, they hopped off and waited for us to take them back to the spot where they could pick up another ride and some more photo cash.
No picture can prepare you for the pile of skulls in the stupa. No exhibit in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, except perhaps the room full of shoes, has the same power as those dry and brittle artifacts of extermination.
Skulls are often described as grinning. These were not. They were stare at you with a combination of pleading and accusation. The small holes in their surfaces where the bamboo staves were driven in—bullets couldn’t be wasted on something like execution, and were reserved for those the Khmer Rouge wanted to kill quickly and mercifully—are anything but mute testimony to the violence of this killing field.
The rest of the site is a series of holes in the ground with explanatory signs written in Khmer and English—the common language of international tourism, not just of the Internet. The simplicity and minimal information provided here forces the visitor to reflect rather than consume. In this way, it reminded me of the Holocaust memorial in Minsk, Belarus, which, when visited it in 1998, was essentially a large hole in the ground in the center of the city filled with memorial plaques and headstones from a Jewish cemetery. Once you were down in the hole the noises of the city disappeared and you were left with nothing to do but think about those who died in that hole. Today’s version of the memorial, recently vandalized by teenagers, includes a group of statues marching down into the hole, and has been improved with paving and other more visitor-friendly features. In many ways, this sort of memorial is more powerful than any interactive exhibit the best museums can concoct.
Because I left the cable that connects my laptop to my camera on my desk in Virginia, you’ll have to wait for the images from Cambodia. But I promise to have them up shortly after I return. I’ll come back to this post and add the Choeung Ek photostream to it.
Tomorrow I’ll write about Tuol Sleng in more detail.