A life lost to one is lost to all
Phnom Penh is a city filled with people that never were.
Phnom Penh today is like any busy South-east Asian city. Almost. Around the crumbling French mansions and washing-laden tenements, the sounds of construction vie with the melodies of hawkers, the growl of moto’s, the shouts of pedestrians. But its traffic doesn’t have the frantic breakneck press of Hanoi; it lacks the towering high-rises of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Ghosts of loss fill the empty spaces between taxis and four-wheel drives, between the not quite crowded sidewalks. Something is missing. Someone. Many someones.
The city’s people have now risen to two thirds of the population in 1975. In those days 2.5 million people crowded the markets. A year later, it was a ghost town: a skeleton crew of 20,000 lived on. Empty buildings with hollow eyes grew masks of moss and lichen. Grasses grew long and weeds choked the gardens. The streets lay barren. It was not a place to live. It was a place you came to die.
You, who come to Cambodia, you know the story backwards. You know the end first; you don’t how it was in the beginning, when Pol Pot was just another name, and the Khmer Rouge just another group fighting for freedom. When Tuol Sleng was just a high school, and no one had heard of genocide. Can you look at the rice fields now, at the butterflies spiralling through forest glades, at the prancing cocks captured under chicken mesh domes, and see what it was like before? Can you hear the whine of the bombers overhead? No? Ah.
History is an intricate web of stories. It’s hard to see them all at once. Let’s start with one thread.
You come now to Tuol Sleng to learn. You learn not about Maths and elephants and Khmer script. You learn about suffering.
You make your way through the rooms that unfurl wave after wave of cruelty, earning higher and higher degrees at the school of suffering. You walk through the classrooms converted into prison cells, past the instruments of torture, the boards of photos, faces without name. You come to the room where the skull sits in its special case, glass crowned, slatted wooden bier. Following the proper traditions, the gaps between the wooden slats let the spirits come and go. Did you feel the shiver in the air? I came. I went.
Yes, that’s me, that skull you look at. My empty sockets gaze a little past yours.
No, you say, that can’t be right. Khmer spirits are reincarnated. There should be nothing left to haunt this place.
How knowledgeable you are. Your logic tries to destroy me through my own beliefs. But here I am.
You see, I died an unnatural death. No family cremated my body and said prayers for me: Father had long since disappeared into the Angkar machine and Mother died soon after we were brought here. Soldiers dumped my skin and bones in a mass grave, researchers dug me up again and put me here. There is no way to know who I am, if any of my wider family survived to do their duty to their dead. So I cannot rest. I cannot leave. I am trapped within my mortal remains.
Do I haunt you? Do I infect you with my caged restlessness? That is my eternal task, after all. Abandoned spirits will always haunt the living.
Ah, perhaps Pol Pot was right. I am a bad influence. To keep us was no benefit. To destroy us was no loss.
I knew once the taste of coconut sticky rice, of fresh mango, of frying chicken, of steaming spicy fish. We watch, mouths wet, us spirits, us trapped ones, as the families lay down their offerings in the pagodas. Jasmine laces the darkness, incense dances in languorous curls as saffron monks read the list of names. We wait, but our names are never read. There is no one to remember us. We cannot be fed. We cannot be freed.
Kind hearted people roll sesame seed rice balls into the darkest shadows, gestures that we are not entirely forgotten. They remember us to ward away our misfortune, to keep it from trailing after them. There, you see, what has changed? We have merely been transformed from bad influences to beisac, bad spirits, bringing bad luck for the people that live on. Already you can see the bitterness flowing from me. The liquid-eyed young khmer girl has all but disappeared; the empty-eyed khmoc lives on forever. But I was a ghost long before I died.
More rice balls roll into the darkness. Us trapped ones swarm and pounce. The nutty essence of sesame, the heart-warming texture of rice fill our empty mouths. Rice is something we remember very well.
When the Khmer Rouge became Angkar and ruled our country, we had everything. Everything a good worker could want.
When the Khmer Rouge ruled our country, we had rice. Not much, not enough to fill our bellies or run the nation. Of course, Angkar had to sell most of the harvest to supply the peasants with the goods we could not make. To free Kampuchea from the tyranny of foreign economies, we had to be self reliant. We had to have everything we needed, right here.
We had nothing. No banks, no currency, no connections with the outside world. No vehicles, no machines, no factories, no books, no medicines. No monks, no monasteries, no universities, no hospitals, no teachers. Angkar destroyed all of that. They took away the little ones too: all the children in the village vanished one day, to be trained away from the soiled influence of their parents. Mothers had no sons, daughters had no fathers. Every family gaped with loss. One in five people were dead.
But all of this was just the wasteful trappings of illusory bourgeois lives. Angkar gave us everything we really needed. Work in the fields. Sleep when there was not enough light to work anymore. Belief in a greater power: Angkar.
Angkar took my father from my heart as well as from my side. They told us we had no need of parents, because Angkar was our mother and our father. When he was arrested, they read out his charges. Father stood there, silent, barefoot, rubbing at his glasses with his threadbare shirt. The village stood around and listened too. A cartload of shame weighted the air that I struggled to breathe in. I couldn’t believe that he had done those things – betrayed my mother with multiple lovers, plotted against the government. I was staring at a man I did not know.
I read his confession, a year later when they sent it out. He denied nothing. He had been in prison, I think, during that time. Or on trial. We didn’t know where he was: he was not our father. Angkar was.
As luck would have it, later we came to know where he had been, because we were taken there ourselves. Tuol Sleng. Our crime was the stain of association with the father that was no longer ours. We discovered the real crime he had been arrested for: he wore glasses. A sign of education. If reason had seemed precarious before, it disappeared entirely now.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The world has declared it so, but I saw no reason or conscience in those that held us prisoner.
Who can call themselves human that forbids crying under torture?
Who can claim a conscience who kills children for the crimes of their fathers?
We all lost our humanity, there. Not even animals were treated as poorly as we were, so we knew we were less than animals. I remember the nights of endless darkness, the screams of the tortured smearing through the walls as we waited our turn. I remember the mesh that covered the walkways so that no one could jump and end things before their turn. I remember the dawn coming, easing a gray light onto caged windows, concrete floors, stained walls, empty faces. The light did not bring relief. At dawn, a new shift of interrogators replaced the old. There was no rest for those being worked on.
It is history now.
It is past, and my death put an end to my pain. Over four hundred people died here a month, every month, for 3 years. Tuol Sleng was only one of hundreds of such centres connected in an intricate web of death reaching over every Cambodian district. Who was I to think that I might survive? I was destroyed along with millions of others. To keep us was no benefit. To destroy us: no loss.
But injustice does not rest with the death of the victim. Death does not put right the suffering of the past. The weight of injustice lives on in those that survive, those who have borne witness, and in the ghosts that cannot find peace. Sometimes they are one and the same.
Spirits living and dead remain disturbed by the past. Forgetting seems like the surest road to attaining a peaceful inner spirit, a face glimmering with the serenity of a Buddha in the candle light. After all, we are not your family. We are no one to you. How easy it would be to forget us.
We can not forget.
The streets of Phnom Penh are peaceful now. The traffic has calmed, the streetlights glow. The sticky heat of the day is released; the cool shades of night spread. A growling moto weaves through the suburbs, stitching together scraps of lives in a patchwork city.
The city has not forgotten. Here and there from the darkest corners where the neon shop lights don’t reach, the spirits ease from the shadows. They trail the pavements eternally: the spirits of the past cannot be exorcised. They flow through the streets in streams of ten, hundreds, thousands, millions. They will never leave; they remain forever to warn the living. The moto wades knee-deep through an eternal flood of souls.
Remember us. Remember the dead. Only in remembering can we guard the future, together. When the dead are remembered, our burden is shared. Then all of our spirits can lift free of the horrors of the past.
- Khmer: the people of Cambodia
- Khmoc: Khmer word for ghost
- Khmer Rouge: name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who ruled Cambodia in the late 1970’s
- Angkar: Khmer word for ‘the organisation’: the name the Khmer Rouge called themselves.
– “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” Popular saying of Angkar.
– “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1
The Australian Literature Review