Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cambodia : Phnom Penh

…when the plane was busy making a dusty bumpy landing on the tarmac, I could see stretches of green fields punctuated by little clapboard house roofs here and there. And then the potted green colour of plants in the cool airport waiting room, not a leaf out of place. Looking at the polished doorknobs, the immaculate lapels, the synthetic brightness of the flat television screens and dollars being flung on every counter, it was hard to believe that this country had faced the largest proportional genocide just 30 years back. Through the haze of immigration complications, I could make out the starched uniforms, the practised smiles. Yet the eyes held a different story for every Cambodian we came across. In a regime that had wiped out a third of the nation, every person had a history of loss, a new tale of agony that was to stay forever.

But Phnom Penh the capital, had in no way stayed behind. Youngsters perched on motorbikes whizzing through the night breeze along the riverside; night clubs and flashy food joints crowding every street corner; and that “ happy” life to tempt those with the green bills. The rest were also there. Not hidden away, just overlooked. Outside the museum, selling Lonely Planet copies, or playing with apple peels on the pavement, showing me the way to my car. It was a sickeningly simple social ladder. Two rungs. The highest, lost in clouds and the lowest, left to grapple in the mud. A gaping void in between.

Yet, the air hangs heavy with a new scent as one approaches The Killing Fields. Even the grass is a different green here, a green lost in the dark ditches that lie scattered all around. Sometimes the stories are engraved in blunt words for tourists to read and sometimes the wind’s feel on your skin reminds you. The ditches have coughed up thousands of skulls that now adorn the shelves of the memorial. A mound of clothes have been dumped on the first level belonging to all the corpses that were recovered. A wooden post says: “ Clothes were cleaned with deodorants in 1988”. And above it, rows and rows of yellowed bone, the teeth still glued, the jaws still fixed, the gashes on the cranium bearing testimony to Pol Pot’s famous words: “Don’t waste bullets”. Bludgeoned on the head and buried unconscious.

The ideology of Pol Pot (head of the Party of Democratic Campuchia also known as the Khmer Communist Party) which later defined all Khmer Rouge activities in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 was based on a radical form of agrarian communism. So the country needed cleansing of those who didn’t till their land. All but farmers were methodically executed, the figures rising to 7.5 million (1975). The driving motto was “ To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss”. Execution and burial of thousands took place at “The Killing Fields”, victims being transported from the prison “Tuol Sleng”, which has become another popular tourist attraction in Cambodia.

Orginally a school building, the black boards at Tuol Sleng have heard more than history lessons. The blood has long since been washed away, the stench removed, the bits and pieces of flesh and skin mopped out, yet the rusted iron shackles peek from the brick torture cells, the sunlight fails to illuminate the metallic beds, the enamel plates, the cuffs and ropes, and the large photographs screaming at you from every room at Tuol Sleng. Black and white shots of burnt corpses lying on the same beds.
The dust on the huge makeshift gallows looks down upon the immersion pots below. Now empty. Yet when I stand so close to them, the camera clicks and buzz of tourists wane. I can hear the water gushing out as prisoners were immersed, hanging upside down from the gallows.
And then the faces. Apprehensive, frowning, angry, surprised, smiling, wary, expressionless. Hundreds of mug shots looking straight at me, the prisoner numbers pinned on their shirts. Some didn’t have shirts, so the paper was pinned on the skin. The twinkle in each eye veiled, the tears frozen, the gaze steady.
I look away. Outside. Where the chirp of sparrows flitting in and out of the windows have dampened the cry of prisoners, where the scent of blossoms wafting up from below the gallows have replaced the odour of singed skin and where the menacing barbed wire and the stained prison walls look up to the cheery blue sky above…bringing promises of a new chapter.

The memorial at The Killing Fields

Mass grave: The Killings Fields

Skulls of victims on display

Clothes of corpses excavated

Photographs by Tirtharaj Paul