“In here not lonely, only sexy happy lady”. “No lonely here, happy”. Brightly-lit signs up and down our street in Phnom Penh heralded the joyful and gregarious nature of the bars (and ladies in the bars) underneath them.
Bright though the lights were, it took us two days to realize precisely what corner of Phnom Penh we had unwittingly nestled ourselves into. Having purposely chosen a windowless hotel room (street noise avoidance tactic), we were ensconced in it by early evening, physically weary and emotionally exhausted. So it was that we let thirty-six hours slip by before the penny dropped. By day the signs are unlit and call little attention to themselves. By night, lit up, they tell a different story, a tall tale of no loneliness, sexy happy ladies, good drinks, and the lights are mostly red…
We had arrived by bus early one afternoon, quickly checked in, and then set off for a long walk along the edge of the Mekong River. On our walk we passed temples and restaurants, palatial buildings and throngs of people: fishermen, monks, beggars, tourists, touts, businessmen, soldiers, and vendors. We crossed this street. Twice.
Back at our hotel, two shadowy Western men in their sixties were drinking beers in silence on the hotel’s rather boring-looking balcony. We went to bed in our windowless room, solemnly unaware of what was happening in dark recesses and dimly lit bars all around us; unaware that we were in the heart of Street 136, a street with a reputation. The next morning the mute shadowy men were on the balcony again (still?), leering out over the street below, and we wondered about them, then set off for the day. When we got back that night, the street was fully illuminated, and so were our curiosities about the leery men (who, by the way, were still on the balcony, waiting to make their move). “No lonely here” indeed. With peals of laughter we looked around, up and down the street, unable to comprehend how we’d missed all this until now.
It’s not that red light districts are funny, necessarily. We were laughing at ourselves. After all, we needed something to laugh at; the day had been a difficult one for us, for we had seen precisely what we came to Phnom Penh to see.
Tuol Sleng Prison
The infamous S-21 prison. Tuol Sleng. Silent and chilling, the concrete halls of this school-turned-prison in Phnom Penh have been left much as they were after the Vietnamese liberation of 1979. Inside several rooms, beds and torture devices remain; elsewhere, poster boards of the faces of prisoners are a gloomy maze to walk through.
These are faces of the condemned, echoing back from the past, many of them photographed with only a few hours or days left to live — hours or days of starvation and torture before being taken to the killing fields: blindfolded, handcuffed, loaded onto overcrowded trucks, hemmed in by wooden slats, like pigs to an abattoir. Then, at Choeung Ek or any of the more than three hundred other killing fields like it, these “threats to the regime” were processed, dragged to the edge of a corpse-filled hole in the ground, made to kneel down, and bludgeoned with a heavy instrument: a hammer perhaps, or a shovel (bullets had become scarce and too valuable to waste on these wretched souls). Dispatched, their lifeless — and occasionally not yet lifeless — bodies were kicked into the grave, sprayed with DDT, covered with soil.
The pictures are too hard to look at for very long, and the halls of Tuol Sleng are filled with board after board of them. So you pick out a few, you climb into their eyes, as it were, you bow your head, suffer with them for a while, and then walk on down the hallway, wondering about the human race.
Seeing their faces, you wonder how the rest of the world, so paralyzed by Cold War paranoia, so viscerally opposed to any action by communist Vietnam — even if that action is overthrowing a ruthless dictatorship and putting an end to genocide — could turn its back on these people. You wonder how they could give their tacit support to the Khmer Rouge for more than a decade afterwards. By not bringing them to trial in the World Court (or any tribunal for that matter, until 2007). By giving them a seat at the United Nations — flying their flag in Manhattan until as recently as the 1990s. You wonder how the demented homicidal mastermind of it all, Pol Pot, with the blood of two million people on his hands, among them infants and children held by their feet and smashed to death against a tree at Choeung Ek, could be granted the dignity to live a long life and die comfortably at home, in his sleep, under house arrest, in 1998, at the age of seventy-two.
Before long, as you stare into the eyes of the doomed, one picture at a time, you are no longer thinking in terms of institutions, paradigms, regimes, policies, dictators, or the machinery of cruelty. You can no longer think in millions. No longer deal in the currency of incomprehensible numbers, wholes greater than the sum of their parts. Numbers so large they become abstract. Murky estimates. Dehumanized statistics. Image by image the pictures pull you out of the abstract, haul you from the comfort of history books. Now you see them, the condemned: one by one, person by person, real photographs of real people, gaunt, hollow, hopeless, tortured, with outcomes inescapable, their futures short and not their own to make.
You wonder at the human race. Cambodian genocide, the atrocities of apartheid — but also space travel, John Lennon’s Imagine, the Camp David Peace Treaty, Happy Days… Mass suicide at Jonestown, military coup in Afghanistan, Son of Sam, The Unabomber, war in Eritrea — but also The Village People, Little House on the Prarie, Monty Python … could all these things really have been happening all at once? They always do. What are we? The mind spins…
The Killing Fields
At Choeung Ek, the most notorious of Cambodia’s killing fields, we stood at a mass grave and were silenced. It’s impossible to imagine, truly imagine, what happened here so recently. In trying to do so, I found myself staring at friendship bracelets. In recent years, a new tradition has been born at Choeung Ek: attaching friendship bracelets to bamboo poles that surround the grave sites. Beyond staring, within moments I found myself doing it too — silently untying the bracelet Megan had bought me from a street vendor in Bali, and placing it around a bamboo rod. At the same time, Meg had already begun untying hers.
Wrapping bracelets around poles surrounding a mass grave. A curious act. A small token of what? Solidarity? Perhaps it’s as much as to say, this could have been me. To the victims, who will never hear what I have to say, your clothing lies strewn in tatters across these forlorn fields; here, have a tatter of mine. A little gesture, a strange symbol, and this comes to mind: one bracelet on a pole means nothing, in the way one padlock on a bridge means nothing. But thousands of bracelets on hundreds of poles has to mean something, if no more than this: we were all here. We left something material behind, and took something ethereal with us in exchange. We remember. You’re in our thoughts. Bracelets — to say nothing of their circularity, the eternity of their shapes — all different, sharing a sameness nonetheless, will never rise up and slaughter their fellow bracelets.
We were reminded here, as we were in Croatia some four months ago — walking through bombed-out buildings on the outskirts of Dubrovnik, exploring ruined coastal hotels, shattered structures — that genocidal savagery is a current event, not some morbid mystery tucked away in benighted corners of medieval history. The paranoia about our differences that sparks genocide is present, it’s everywhere, hunkered down in our DNA somewhere, and without doubt the next Pol Pot walks among us here on earth today. Most importantly, then, whatever else the bracelets might mean, each one is a small voice that says this: the next Pol Pot is not me.
Meg and I barely spoke for the rest of the afternoon, a harrowing gloom had settled over us after visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng. To find respite from sorrow, to reconnect with each other, we went for ice cream along Phnom Penh’s waterfront. As if to ease us back into the present — to bring us back to happier moods — an outdoor sunset dance exercise routine broke out on the embankment. Dozens of people, all moving in unison. Somewhere deep in the back of our minds: a dim thought, a feeling of hope for humanity. On these streets, where thirty-eight years ago people were forced from their homes, rounded up, consigned to “work camps”, tortured and killed, today people gather every evening to dance together. On the surface of things: mirth. Lighthearted, delighted, in Phnom Penh they dance on into the night, into darkness.