observations and opinion
January 1, 2016
Dusk hits fast and hard at the girdle of the world, and already the light falls pale and grey where hazy hot blue had blazed just an hour before. The pool will soon be still. Umbrellas fold down like suit jackets pulled from shoulders, drooping down; looking up, I see a row of empty deck chairs – as if their occupants evaporated, or ascended to heaven, while my eyes were closed. Lanterns light on the stucco walls, glinting in streaks upon the rippled waters of the pool. It is azure now, a mirror where things disappear.
My first days in Phnom Penh, I spent few hours at the pool. Rather than basking in the reflected glow of the past year’s labours, soaking up the heat and light of the hotel quad, I trudged up and down dusty Asian streets, stepping over garbage while avoiding the ceaseless imprecations of small men selling something – anything. These overheated hikes were with a purpose, to somewhere from somewhere, in pursuit of equatorial misery. No idling.
As many hours as spent walking, were the hours spent with death. First, at the killing fields of Choeung Ek and then sick, hot boxy torture chambers at the S-21 detention centre, known as Tuol Sleng. When I close my eyes I see the bodies chained to the floor, the last few killed at S-21. And I see the bones and skulls, stacked six storeys high at Choeung Ek and imagine the million more restless dead. They have rotted away to become the earth itself, grown to become the banyan tree giving shade from the sun. They are done their rotting, but still stir in the soil underfoot.
The Khmer Rouge nightmare was quick in historical terms (just under four years) but I imagine the minutes spent by its millions of victims were far longer than the hours spent recalling their agony at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. More than three decades have passed since Cambodia was liberated from itself. The darkness fell hard and fast over Cambodia, but the dawn has been long and slow since. Now, along with bargains and epic ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia offers the world a window – a twisted funhouse mirror, more like – depicting the ugliness of what the human soul can be and do.
I came to see the place where men have done their darkest and where the orphans of the world – ignored, tormented, murdered by their own – have begun to build their own new life, on the bones and ruins of the old. To call our sojourn “genocide tourism” sounds glib and belittling, no less than applying such a term to Auschwitz. But there is truth in it and it is not a terrible truth – we came to be witness to something.
It is a wearying, deadening experience. The hours spent in the hot, wretched rooms of the old Khmer Rouge torture buildings filled me with dread. I would not reverse the experience – they were hours I was meant to spend – but I am tired. Tired of the bottomless capacity of men to do evil, tired of wondering if their brave heirs will find their way out from the valley, to the green tops of the Cardamom mountains.
A deep fatigue floods one’s veins and sinews in the shadow of mass death. Being both alive and lucky, one cannot stand on this ground and utter many complaints. But however meagre and unmeritorious, the complaint surfaces. It is surprising to find some inner yearning for solitary, beachy bliss by the pool – not an instinct that I have cultivated. We are all smaller and more selfish than we give ourselves credit for, I guess. I am anyhow.
I confess, some part of me this late afternoon, wishes not to know what I know. Wishes that the worst of what men do was beyond my imagination, rather than staring back at me, from the eyeless sockets of a thousand skulls. But the life itself within us compels that we bear witness, to the suffocation of so many other innocent lives.
We have seen much, more than we know that we have seen. But what of it? They say a story is little more than scenery and noise, if the characters remain the same. Are we changed by witnessing this? How would we know, if we were? I don’t know.
Within the dry sands of my fatigue, I feel a corrosive rage, dull and sour, and I know that where fate placed me and in what it has offered to me, I have been absurdly lucky. The silence of new night speaks to me that I must be more grateful than I thought possible before this. And in the falling blackness of the first evening of the first day of the new year, I will swim in the azure pool.