Building C. Room 11. Cell 5. She catalogues this in her brain and steps inside. She does not want to be here: standing in the former cell of a prisoner likely killed. The practice in empathy feels important.
Resisting the urge to distance herself from the pains of war, she sits. Takes a deep breath. Observe, she urges herself. Feel this, she implores.
The bloodstains on the floor draw her in. The questions of whose and why and when overwhelm. Perhaps most shocking, what were the crimes? A college diploma? A job in the city? The tragic timing of being in the path of the Khmer Rouge?
Turning to the side, she sees a long crack in the brick. Did they talk to one another? The neighboring cellmates. She saw the rules posted: silence unless responding to an order. In the veil of night, were hushed whispers exchanged? What were the consequences of such a breach?
Consequences: torture tactics prominently displayed in the adjacent building. Forced, though false, confessions. Bodies laid in the fields. Killed by machetes or buried alive with DDT to finish the job.
Oh, God- those fields. The stench is gone, swallowed by forty years of history. But the remains refuse to keep quiet. With every flood, new bones surface. Clothing- ragged and weatherworn- caught her eye at every turn. And that tree. No longer a symbol of life. The trunk stands tall, bellowing its horror at a body used to smash the skulls of children.
Inside the city, the prison served as a holding pen for those yet to be shipped to the “truck stop,” death’s door. Today, it is a site for people still in search of family members. The endless pictures of prisoners posted are almost too much to bear. She averts her eyes as a Cambodian family searches the faces of every photograph.
She moves on, searching instead the cells once filled.
The second floor is worse. The wooden panels threaten to close in, compressing the distress that surrounds. No sitting this time. The space is too crowded for that, filled with the spirits of the long dead. Overflowing with the agony of injustice. The claustrophobia mounts, making her wonder at the human capacity for resilience.
The human capacity for atrocity, though, is what is most disturbing. Maybe that is what she is trying to look at, to understand: what we as humans are capable of doing to one another.
What she might be capable of doing. She knows enough to not trick herself into thinking the enemy is clear. Distance from the pain is not the only temptation. To separate herself from the psyche of an executioner, to remove the common humanness of a murderer, that is the ultimate allure.
The stories of the child soldiers turned genocidaires echo in her mind. It was kill or be killed. I did not have a choice. We were running for so long; when they caught us it finally provided a chance to stop. I just wanted relief from watching one more family member be murdered. Most loudly, she hears the question: Why am I, the common peasant, being punished while the orchestrators of the genocide remain untouched?
Genocide. No word in the English vocabulary can illicit such a visceral reaction as this one. Chilling, incomprehensible, wholly inadequate in naming what happened here.
Not just here. Rwanda. Bosnia. Germany. Today: Darfur and the DRC. South Sudan and Syria in tow. (Let’s not forget we too belong on this list if we go back just one century more).
And how do we name such a reality? More importantly, how do we face it? Because without looking, we will never interrupt it. Dare she say eradicate. “Never again” is the slogan for every memorial, remembrance the ideal we espouse. But what of the continued, the current, the undeniable repetition?
Staring squarely into the face of our darkest potential, she fights the urge to put her fingers to her ears, squeeze her eyes shut, run out of the museum and far from the questions and implications of this place.
She can’t hold its gaze for long.
Mentally, she writes a story. Third person. Distant. Impersonal. Anything to keep these truths- these fears- at bay. Left on the soon-distant shores of Cambodia’s coast.