Tuol Sleng

I can’t sleep. Today we visited Tuol Sleng, the infamous high school turned prison turned genocide museum in Phnom Penh, and now I can’t sleep.

I’d been putting off going there, nervous that it would be too much for me, yet knowing that it was an essential part of our visit to this country and to understanding Cambodia. For this reason, I wanted to go. And for the desire to simply bear witness and through that to honor the suffering and loss of the people affected by everything that occurred during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Some advice from a fellow traveller (thank you!) helped me steady my nerves. Her suggestions helped – because of her tips I caught myself when I was holding my breath (which was often), took breaks in the open courtyard when I started to feel overwhelmed, and tried to take it easy on myself.

I took a lot of photos – the camera lens helped to create some necessary distance while the images I tried to capture helped me start to take in and process all that I was seeing.

Still, after over two hours there, my head hurt and my legs felt like they were filled with helium.

After we left, I distracted myself with food, shopping, music, internet. Now, lying in bed in the quiet and dark, my brain keeps turning over the things we saw and learned, trying to digest and discover some understanding. I keep coming back to the same simple questions: why and how?

There is plenty I still don’t know about Cambodian history, politics and culture. I am aware that the factors leading up to the reign of the Khmer Rouge are complex. I wouldn’t begin to lay blame on the people involved at the time who were forced to choose between participating in the murders, torture and other atrocities or themselves becoming victims of the same horrific fates. Who knows what any of us would do to survive?

But what I can’t comprehend is how circumstances, personalities and points of view could ever coincide in such a way that something like this could ever happen. How? How is senseless violence on such a scale possible? How does someone get to a point where they are in power and think taking actions and giving orders that result in the decimation of over 20% of their country’s population could ever be justifiable? The questions feel futile, but in my restless brain this word keeps echoing while sleep evades: why?

Pol Pot, head of the Khmer Rouge, is long dead at this point and the trials of leaders still living are mired in political complications and scandal; it seems answers and justice for the Cambodians who lived – and died – during the genocide may never arrive.

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