Monday, March 17, 2008

Confused. Horrified. Frustrated.

I felt sick looking at the pictures. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, and the tears forming in my eyes. There were so many. Most of the photos were of average people, the ones you would pass on the street everyday, but some were different. There were the ones with obvious mental retardation, ones with physical abnormalities, and then there were the children. Thousands of photos of children. Some stared blankly into the camera, but most had a look of desperation in their eyes. Odds are they had just been separated from their mothers, and, as children made too much of a fuss, it was likely they were going to be executed very soon. Everyone died in the end. Out of the 20,000 prisoners only eight survived. The children though, well, they were always the first to die. Bullets were in high demand in those days so they usually weren't used on prisoners. Besides, children's skulls are fragile, and it is easy to bludgeon a child. It only takes one or two good whacks...

I stood in S-21 (also known as Tuol Sleng), situated the heart of Phnom Penh, my eyes filled with tears. Tuol Sleng had been an elementary school at one point in time, but with education no longer a priority for Pol Pot and his brutal regime it was quickly converted into a torture center and prison. The photos were gruesome. Blood drenched carcasses lay chained to the floor. Others showed naked women and children lying on wire beds while they had their genitals removed, or their fingers sliced off one at a time. The blood that was produced was the only constant that tied the torture techniques together. Passing the rotting piles of clothes which are still present in areas of the prison I came to the skulls. There were a lot of skulls. Not all 19,992, but a lot. They stared back, much as the people in the photos stared back, and I felt as though even the skulls were begging for help. Begging to see their children or their wives. Begging to live.

To say that these last few weeks have been intense would be a gross understatement. I arrived in Cambodia yesterday after spending two weeks in Myanmar. Those two weeks consisted of enduring the five worst bus rides of my life (I rode five buses in Myanmar), ungodly temperatures (it was 38-40C in many parts of the country), and the ever present reminders of how a brutal dictatorship repressed it's people. Like the atrocities committed by Pol Pot the actions of the ruling military junta have decimated a nation.

If I have taken anything away from Myanmar it was the stories the people told. The frustration with a government who controlled everything. A government unwilling to build roads (I would have appreciated that), unwilling to provide schools, unwilling to listen to the demands of the people.

The tension was in the air everywhere I went. "Where are you from?" some one would ask. "U.S.A." I would reply for the 50th time that day. "Ah, America. Very good country. Who you vote for? Clinton? Obama? McCain?" "I like Obama." "Oh yes, me too. He is good man. If only we had a chance to elect a man like Obama." That might sound like one conversation, but it wasn't. It was the same conversation I had with the monk, the construction engineer, the student, the tri-shaw driver, and the guesthouse owner. The yearning to be free. To vote. To matter.

Of course the government recognizes what it is the people want, and, to help spread the word of the people, they post these demands in the newspaper everday of the week under the heading The People's Desire.

- Oppose those relying on external elements acting as stooges, holding negative views
- Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
- Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
- Crush all internal and eternal destructive elements as the common enemy

Confused. I have been feeling that a lot lately. Confused as to why I am traveling to these places. Confused as to what I am supposed to do to help these people.

Frustrated. I have been feeling that a lot lately as well. Frustrated by what I am seeing. Frustrated by not knowing what it is that I am supposed to do.

I have certainly never been accused of being the most articulate person in the world. I wish that I had more to say on these matters. I really don't. How can I relay the feeling of looking out a bus window, watching children, who are probably not even teenagers yet, carry buckets of boiling tar, their exposed legs covered with burns, their feet sticky with the tar they have already poured. These are the road crews who are fixing the dilapidated roads I complained so much about. Often times there are women too. They are usually old women who spend their days hunched over a pile of gravel, sifting through the rocks, or heating the tar for the boys to carry. These are the things I will remember long after the trip is over. These are the things I will never be able to explain to anyone no matter how hard I may try.

And so, with all these feelings of sorrow, confusion, and frustration racing around my head, I stood in the middle of S-21 with tears in my eyes. Not just for the victims of a brutal regime, but for the victims of all brutal regimes. For the children with tar on their legs, for the amputees whose lives had been forever changed with one false step, for the women who were too old to walk upright, but were still forced to build a road, for everyone who wanted to be free but found themselves short changed.


Marius said...

well, you might just have succeded in transmitting a bit through words..the confusion..the resentment..the frustrations.

slowly, i hope people realise what's going on and take action.

best wishes from europe!

Rob Thomson said...

Just don't travel. Then you never have to think about this stuff. Or the love-inconsistencies in your own culture (when you get back and hit reverse culture shock). You can enjoy your little cultural/religious bubble and be content.

If everyone in the western world had to partake in compulsory overseas mission/travel/volunteering for one year (like compulsory army service), then we'd be closing in on peace.

Think about it. How much money does it take to train one soldier for one year? Or even six months. I'd be willing to bet it costs a government more than US$10,000. And with US$10,000, a young punk could travel/volunteer/do missions easily for a year in a developing country.

It's all about governmental priorities.

*end rant*

Good on you for stepping outside your norm and sharing what you see and experience.