The darkness we all share, at Tuol Sleng, Cambodia

I don’t want to talk about this. I want to tell you about the color of the water at Kep, the hammock that swayed by the waves which slid on a day that lingered on mango fingertips, or the stone nobility of ancient ruins in banyan shade.

But between Cambodia’s ancient history and its modern reality lies something else, this other thing, a part of their history too gruesome to be contained by a nation, so must be remembered and owned by all of us.


(Fair warning. This post may be disturbing. If you don’t want to hear about cruelty today, stop now.)


Flimsy barbed wire, strong enough to keep the ruined people inside from seeking escape through suicide

Flimsy barbed wire, strong enough to keep the ruined people inside from seeking escape through suicide

We were somber when we left the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, mourning the deaths of so many that estimates can’t even agree which million to begin with. Was it a quarter of Cambodia’s 8 million people who died, or nearly half? But the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prison, Tuol Sleng, S-21, has something worse than sadness.


It used to be a school. That’s the first part that gets me. Children ran and played in these halls, laughing and learning. But the Khmer Rouge opposed education, feared intelligence, so schools were closed, and this place became the site of a blasphemy against humanity.


(Last warning.)


Tuol Sleng room hazeAt first it just looked like a school. Then merely a prison. Bare rusty iron bedframes stood in the still air, and an awareness of abuse rose in my mind. Then I looked at the picture on the wall, and slowly accepted that the melted wreckage on the bed had been a human. I looked down at the floor and understood what the stains meant, the blood and ruined flesh in this room where people were left to decay between tortures, until they were finally allowed to die, perhaps murdered by hand at Choeung Ek, or thrown alive on a pile of burning tires.


The images of pain, the relics of inhumanity, pile up in my memory of that place. Room after room of them, two buildings of three storeys each, more torture in the courtyard where children once played. Photos of unknown victims now line the walls, so much data of suffering and such an absence of reason. Who did they think they were fighting?


I understand the concepts. The Khmer Rouge told people in the countryside that all their woes were the fault of the city people, then gave them the guns to do something about it. And once it starts, it burns out of control, because what guard will protest the cruelty, when that might put him in shackles next? That happened regularly, in the Khmer Rouge’s internal purges.


Tuol Sleng bodies and victimsBut at the end of the day, I just cannot make sense of the inhumanity of what happened. The sheer senseless cruelty is stupefying. It makes me wish I believed in demons, since demonic possession would explain it, might take it out of our hands. But it was not demons who did those things, it was men.


So tempting to say “Well, we would never do that.” How many times can we say that? How many nations have to descend into madness before we realize it’s in us? And how many times will we stand around afterwards and wonder why no one did anything? I’m sure my grandfather meant it when he swore “never again” after World War II, yet we did nothing while the Cambodian people died. And we turned away while machetes cleaved flesh in Rwanda. And we pretended to believe Reagan while “freedom fighters” burned down houses with the families still inside in Nicaragua, just as they had in Guatemala. And maybe we tweet while Boko Haram turns children into suicide bombers. And maybe we click a petition while the bombs rain down on the long-tortured population of Gaza.


Tuol Sleng wall photoOn a normal day, I believe in humanity. I believe that our species is making gradual progress towards reason, gradually developing the abstract thinking to care about others, even if we don’t know them personally. Gradually defeating the sort of reptile mind that thinks “Well, that’s just Them.” But that sort of sunlight is hard to see in a place like Tuol Sleng prison. And in that darkness, the headlines are still legible, as “hard liners” and sociopaths allowed to “lead” tear apart human bodies and minds.


The sun was shining on the last day of 2014 in Phnom Penh. I still loved the city, but its sounds seemed muted. I still loved the country, but it felt sticky with drying blood. I still loved the planet, but it felt brittle with the violence we’re still allowing. The next day, we would travel to Chi Phat, where human goodness would again be on display, again tangible, again something I could believe in. But at the end of 2014, standing in the sun in a place where such inhumanity happened, I could not feel warm.