Yesterday, I visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. There were graphic photos of torture and murdered prisoners and blood stains on the walls and floors. Three of the buildings have been updated so they can be used as exhibition areas, but the building that has been kept intact, full of tiny cells – some wooden, some brick – and a mass holding area is haunting beyond words.
The prison was formerly a school, but under the Khmer Rouge, education was forbidden and academics were murdered. Schools such as this one were taken over and used as places of imprisonment and torture. The regime wanted to create a society based on ignorance and so once they were overthrown, the country had to start over again in every way.
Some of the exhibits were defaced – the face of Pol Pot was scratched out and destroyed with abusive comments. The graffiti was in a variety of international languages, clearly showing a global anger towards these events. And yet all the Cambodian people I have met approach this differently – they show no anger, just a desire for it never to happen again. They do not forgive or forget, but neither do they react with bitterness or aggression.
Visitors were taking photos of the photographs in the exhibition, which I do not understand. There were no signs saying photos weren’t allowed, but it felt so wrong, especially seeing as families are still impacted and are still seeking the truth about their lost relatives. And yet people continued to take photos of the suffering of others. The only prominent sign was a pictorial request for ‘no smiling.’ I think this is important though there was nothing in the museum that would want to make you smile…
…Until you have seen all of the exhibits and are about to leave. Here, you get to meet two survivors – Chum Mey and Bou Meng. They each have a book for sale that documents their time within the prison, and their hopes for the future. The subtitle of Bou Meng’s book is:
Justice for the future, not just for the victims.
I got to meet each survivor, to ask a couple of questions and to tell them how much I admire them and how much I love the gentleness and kindness of the Cambodian people. Bou Meng was so delighted to hear this, he gave me a huge hug and an unexpected kiss on the cheek.
Yet another wonderful encounter that only strengthens my love for this country and its people.