Faces in the crowd

The sight of hundreds of faceless skulls staring out at you is not one that you ever forget.  Nor is it one that you enjoy, but in Cambodia it’s a sight you have to see.  It’s one that defines the country’s recent history.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge swept to power, a post-Vietnam government vulnerable and a once bitten West declining to intervene.  They took control of Phnom Penh, renamed the country Kampuchea and reset the calendar to year zero.  The cities were emptied and in the countryside they unceremoniously slaughtered nearly a third of the population.

Up to two million people disappeared until, in 1980, their mass graves started to be found.  You can visit a few of them a short taxi ride from the capital.  But to call them graves is to lend their diggers undeserved respectability.  At Choeung Ek, known to tourists as the Killing Fields after David Puttnam‘s film, you can see them for what they are: giant holes in the ground, once hastily covered but now partially excavated.  They still reveal scraps of clothing and other detritus, but the exhumed skulls and bones of thousands of victims are stacked in a giant glass tower, categorised by race, sex and age to show how the Khmer Rouge spared no one.  Everyone was equal in the Maoist eyes of Pol Pot.  Everyone suffered the same.

The tower has become a symbol of the genocide, and it’s a fitting one.  It silences all its visitors.  In any other country it might be considered shocking, but here the capacity to be shocked is at a wholly different level.  The sad truth is that successive self-serving Cambodian governments have failed to point their country’s future in the opposite direction to its history.

If there is anything more disturbing than the Killing Fields it’s their waiting rooms.  But the Tuol Sleng museum wasn’t always so haunted.  It used to be the Tuol Svay Prey High School and if you ignore the empty silence its exterior still fits that description.  In between it was Security Prison 21 and its ghosts ensure that it can never return to its original role.  Outside the gate a smartly dressed woman in her forties asked if she might show me around.  She was too polite to be refused.

Phou patiently led me from room to room and through her country’s recent history.  Some of the rooms were left as they had been discovered: cells with barred windows, dried blood staining the floor.  Inside were empty metal bed frames next to graphic photographs showing those same beds each with a murdered occupant.  Downstairs, there were reconstructions and artists’ impressions of elaborate torture devices.  On one wall a huge map of the country was filled with human skulls, its rivers painted dark red.  The metaphor is lost on no one.  Here my guide’s voice wavered and unprompted she told me of her lost husband, her lost brother, her lost parents.  She said that she felt lucky to be alive but, accurate as it was, I wasn’t sure that was how I’d have seen it.  It was, though, a typically Cambodian outlook.

I hesitate to report her story even in this bare detail: it was so personal.  But it was so public too.  Everyone still alive has a story like this.  Cambodians despair for their lawless country.  Some now choose to take advantage of the situation for their own, risky advantage.  Phou and most others struggle on and try to keep out of the trouble.

We were both in tears.  Phou didn’t ask for money but I paid her anyway.  It felt uncomfortable, though, as if I thought that in some way those dollars might compensate her for her losses, or ease what ought to be Western guilt at having watched it all happen.  I could see that my tip was welcome, and of course it was expected, but she was pleased simply to have been allowed to tell her story.

Nobody knows how many died in the Cambodian genocide, but it’s not because no one was counting.  The Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of their victims.  These included their photographs which now wallpaper the ground level rooms of the museum.  From the walls a thousand faces stared at me.  I could see the literally tortured looks on them.  On all of them.  Those faces could have been the same ones that had watched me from the glass tower.  But they almost certainly weren’t.  There had, after all, been so many.

© Nicholas White 1998