For most of us, hesitant acceptance of the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted on its people is the closest we’ll ever get to comprehension.
The singular day and night that I spent in Cambodia’s capital was, in all honesty, as much as I could bear. Not because I didn’t like the city. Its riverside promenade was welcoming, its food markets exciting and the hotel I chose was one of the best of the trip. I had to leave because I just couldn’t dwell, alone on the things I saw on a visit to its infamous S21 Prison.
Knowing my limitations beforehand, I had decided not to visit the Killing Fields themselves. Although as soon as I was through the gates of S21, what had gone on within its walls became absurdly obvious. The executions in the courtyard and the torture in its rooms. Most cells had been left as they were, purposely no effort made to hide the blood stains and tidy the chains that still hung from bed frames.
In the information rooms, grid upon grid of victims photos ate up the walls. Their eyes stared beyond the camera with knowing looks. Expressions of fear, anger and occasionally what appeared to be pure resignation.
It’s estimated that approximately two million Cambodians were killed as a result of Khmer Rouge policy in the 1970s – 25% of the country’s then population. I tried to grab onto the facts from the plaques in front of me but I just couldn’t comprehend how recent it all was. Pol Pot, a sure fire contender for one of the world’s worst despots, oversaw the regime that led to the deaths, yet a candid capture of him smiling at a press conference looked weirdly benign, how?
Leaving the prison was a surreal experience in the knowledge that so many had only ever walked in. I was absent for the rest of the day and only remember a few brief moments. The tranquility of the city’s river is in there. I must have eaten something, perhaps looked into a few shops but it’s vague. Oddly, one of my only memories is having a trivial chat with a lady about the bowl of chicken feet she was selling. I asked how they were prepared and then politely declined.
For the first time on my journey through South East Asia I felt lonely.
I was Rapunzel in the tenth floor hotel room looking bleakly onto the streets below. I selfishly craved company, someone that could have experienced the museum with me and would acknowledge just how awful it all was. Anyone to agree that of course, there’s no way to understand why this mass genocide happened. Perhaps I was looking for justification that visiting this type of place has benefits beyond the obvious income it provides. If enough of us are aware of these atrocities can we stop history repeating itself?
I was desperate to move on. As if, somehow, distance from the scene would erase it from memory. Of course, long after I crossed into Vietnam, continued my travels and arrived in Australia, it never did.