Monday, January 7, 2013

Poisonous Trees

There is still blood on the floor.

Thirty-four years later there remain splatters and smears that have seeped into the floor tiles of the classrooms.

The former secondary school occupies most of a block in a residential neighborhood, in the center of Phnom Penh.  These days the blocks surrounding the school are lined with cafes, hole-in-the-wall convenient stores, a cupcake shop, a pink bubble-tea shop and a Korean travel agency.

When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 they converted the school into their most notorious prison.  They renamed it Security Prison 21 (S-21) and, over the course of four years, they imprisoned, tortured and killed nearly twenty thousand people during the years of genocide.

Today Tuol Sleng prison is a museum and testament to the past.  In Khmer, Tuol Sleng means “Hill of Poisonous Trees.”

Today, January 7th, is Liberation Day, the day that the Khmer Rouge fell to Vietnamese forces.  Today also marks the start of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.  Anniversaries depend on your perspective.  In past years I have heard that there have been celebrations, even parades, at the towering mauve Independence Monument.  Celebrations are subdued this year as the former king, Norodom Sihanouk has recently died and currently lies in state for a February funeral.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum lacks the typical accouterments of a museum. There are no display cases, no descriptions.  For the most part, the rooms are left as they were when the Vietnamese discovered the prison, drawn by the stench of rotting corpses, on January 8th 1979.

The first floor of Block A contains warped metal cots.  The second floor: empty classrooms.  The top floor is the same as the second, though school blackboards remain on the walls.  Room after empty room, tiled in ochre and cream with hazy orange walls. 

The repetition and the crowded emptiness is oppressive.  The mind becomes unmoored into a sea of imaginings.

And then in the last room on the third floor: a bloody eddy of stumbling footprints.

 Block B holds rows and rows of photographs.

The Khmer Rouge was methodical.  Prisoners were given a number and forced to sit for photographs.

Men. Women. Grandparents. Babies. Most stare solemnly.  Some appear confused.  There are a few faces turned away, their eyes looking stubbornly to the side, in a final act of resistance.  Only a few have the daring or the energy left to give the camera a defiant glare.

Room after room of faces. Unending.

Block C was for the common prisoners, the farmers and laborers.  The classrooms here were divided – shoddy cells constructed of brick or wood.  Crude doors were knocked between the classroom walls.

There are four classroom blocks, each three floors tall.  They are set around a large yard that now contains palms and jackfruit trees and the white-washed, raised graves of fourteen final murders.   A now-grassy area that was once a playground and once a yard for conducting torture. 

When the Khmer Rouge tired of torture, they smuggled the prisoners of S-21 out at night and trucked them out to an orchard outside the city called Choeung Ek.   Here they lined the prisoners up and clubbed them to death.  They did not shoot them:  Bullets were too expensive.

Two years ago my dad and I traveled out to these Killing Fields.   Past the gate stands a towering stupa of skulls. 5,000 skulls in total.  There were more bodies, perhaps as many as 10,000 but many skulls have been crushed and many more remain buried. Past the stupa you can walk in the crater-filled orchards.  The depressions are not the result of war bombs.  They are the excavation of mass graves.   When it rains bones emerge from the earth.  Femurs, molars, the jigsaws of a cranium.  Clothes blossom too.  Ragged edges of the traditional checkered black and red krama scarves, the former sleeves of shirts, a two year old’s flounced jumper.

At some point, thirty years from now maybe as many as fifty years from now, when the monsoons come, bones and clothes will cease to sprout from the ground.  Then there will only be the stories and recorded memories. The horrors of history will then no longer be so abrasively palpable.

It has been thirty-four years to the day since the fall of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea.  The abandoned streets of Phnom Penh are filled once again.  The roads are clogged with traffic, restaurants line the riverfront; construction projects are omnipresent.   There are bustling universities and tour buses full of tourists.

There are also beggars – blind, missing arms, missing legs.  Cambodia has one of the highest rates of amputees in the world, a result of an entire countryside seeded with landmines.  There are countless victims of PTSD across the country, most who remain untreated.  How could there not be after thirty years of war and four years of genocide?

My students are the next generation.  They wake up early and study and stay up late and study.  They hope to be lawyers and doctors and businesswomen, fulfilling dreams their parents were denied. 

Their parents are the children of the Khmer Rouge.  They suffered interrupted educations.   They were four and seven and twelve during the genocide.

 My students and I talk of Pol Pot over dinner, sitting along the balconies in the afternoon sun, crouched over bowls of soup in the market place.  The primary schools and high schools of the country cover the subject with a cursory sweep. All of my students have family stories – of starvation or slaughter.  But many of their own parents remained tight lipped.  But not all.

At dinner one night, while extracting meat from between the bones of a river fish, one of my students talks of her family.

Her grandmother survived the genocide.  Her grandfather did not.  Her mother was four at the time and remembers very little.  She remembers being hungry, but not knowing why. 

My student never met her oldest uncle.  When he was twelve the Khmer Rouge wanted him to become a soldier to fight the Vietnamese.  He nor his mother (my student’s grandmother) wanted him to join.  And so the Khmer Rouge killed him in front of his mother.

“She cries when she talks.”

It is Liberation Day, and the girls at the dorm are up early doing an intense cleaning of the entire building.  As the sun rises and dries the balconies one of the girls points up at the sky. 

A cloud of balloon clusters, ribbons fluttering, floats overhead.  “They are from the celebration.” One girl explains.  “To celebrate the end of the Khmer Rouge,” adds another.  “It’s like a second birth.  A new beginning.”

The balloons float over the apartment buildings and the canal and the markets and the coconut trees heading south out into the province, until they are only specks in the sky. 

1 comment:

  1. I opened this post in a surgical waiting room, alone and anxious for my friend somewhere on the other side of the door. I finished reading and looked up at the faces around me. What a lucky little tribe we are - to enter into the world of pain in search of healing, in search of our future. Thank you, Jessica.