There is something unusual about them, but I can’t figure out what it is.
Every five minutes, Phirum pulls out a yellow handkerchief from his pocket, and wipes Sotha down, rubbing at his spiky haired scalp, so you can literally see the sweat drops flying off his head.
Cambodia this time of year is hot. Sweat drips down from parts of your body you did not even know it was possible to sweat from. Everyone glistens and everything is slicked with sheen. Even the flies seem suspended mid- air, too lethargic to do anything but hover. The little boy Sotha, is sitting on his dad Phirum’s lap, gazing out from the Tuk Tuk at the chaos on the roads. Whole families perched on motorbikes, weave in and out, giving each other way in a gentle fashion that is truly bizarre to the Nairobian in me.
We are on our way to S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Between 1975 and 1979, the communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia systematically killed 2,000,000 people, almost 20% of the population. 1979. Just a few shy years from when I was born. S- 21 was a former high school turned into one of the 150 detention camps, where over 20,000 people over a five year period were held and tortured. It is a questionable way to spend such a gorgeous day, but you can’t visit Cambodia and not visit the Museum.
With arguably every single Cambodian having been affected in one way or the other, you feel it in the air. The genocide lingers everywhere. You sense it in the flicker of sadness that flitters over their eyes when they talk. You hear it unspoken, when they talk of rebuilding their country, from scratch. You feel it in the urgency of whole families clinging to each other, as they stroll down the water-front. Most of all you see it in a whole generation missing from the public eye.
It looks like home. The building and field resembles Aga Khan Academy. Hallways that once resounded with teenage teasing and laughter, must have echoed with screams and last gasps of the dying.
It smells like home. Large frangipani trees stretch out over the grass, their velvety white flowers scattered on tombstones. Just like in our cemetery at home.
Phirum holds Sotha by the hand, whisking him down the hallway so fast, his feet don’t touch the ground. We enter the first classroom, tiled like a checkers board. There is a metal bed with a steel rod on it, a dark black stain underneath and a teacher’s desk and chair nearby. On one of the walls is an blurry enlarged photo. Phirum guides Sotha to the picture, whispering to him in Khmer. Sotha is silent. The photo is of the exact scene in front of us, except on the bed is a man, with the metal rod pierced through his skull. The black stain underneath the bed, was blood. It goes on, room after room, testimony to the pure evil that bubbles inside humanity.
Then we move to the next hallway. Walls of photos line each room. First photos of the Khmer Rouge. Portraits in black and white, of young men mostly, hardly out of their teenage years. Mostly they grin. I wonder were those photos taken before they had killed? Were those smiles of optimistic innocence, stemming from a naïve joy of being part of a revolution that would bring change to their country. Or were they smirks to cover up hardened hearts that had become immune to blood.
The next rooms displayed photos of the people who were killed. The Khmer Rouge methodically documented everything. Every single person that entered the school had their photo taken, and their confessions meticulously written down. A cleansing. But not a disappearance. They started getting rid of anybody who posed a threat to their regime; naturally that meant people who were part of the previous government, then professionals, teachers, lawyers, doctors and anybody educated, to the point where if you had glasses, it was presumed you were an intellectual, and were therefore at risk. Imagine. An entire country ‘purged’ of anybody with any education.
I look at their eyes. Walls of eyes. They knew their fate when these photos were taken. It shows in their eyes. A snapshot of their state of mind. Anguish. Sorrow. Grief. Helplessness. Panic. Despair. Cynicism. Hope. Defiance. Anger. Acceptance. Each one different. A variance of emotion. The knowledge of impending death seeping out from their pupils onto the paper.
It is indescribable.
I can’t believe Phirum has brought Sotha to such a place, at such a young age.
We leave S-21 and silently get back in the Tuk Tuk, to make our way to the Killing Fields. The name says it all. Stuck in traffic, Phirum blurts out,
My father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. He was taken to S-21 and tortured. We never found his body. Maybe he was thrown into one of the mass graves here at the Killing Fields. I was five years old. I don’t remember him at all. But I remember when they first opened up S-21 to the public, in 1979, the stench of death climbed into my nostrils and has never left.
Sotha is five years old now. Today is the first time I have brought him here. It is important for him to see these things now.
We walk into the Killing Fields, an open grassy field, except every now and then you notice bone fragments peeking out from the soil, emerging from one of the mass graves underneath.
Phirum stops every now and then, to give Sotha some water, pat him on his head. They never lose contact, Sotha’s tiny hand always enveloped in Phrium’s.
It is truly indescribable.
I can’t understand how such a history has not turned Cambodians insane. We pass a tree, which Phirum tells me was used to kill babies. I don’t understand. My brain can’t wrap itself around that. He explains that they would swing the babies by their legs, smashing them against the tree. They did this so they wouldn’t have to face the threat of these children taking revenge when they grew up.
I see these people around. We all know who they are. The people who were part of the Khmer Rouge, I see them on the streets, in the Government Ministry offices. But what use is revenge. I don’t want my son carrying this burden, and his son after that. It is futile. Buddhism teaches us revenge is the ultimate bondage. It owns you, possesses you, never lets you go. I never want anything to own my son.
Every single person in Cambodia lost somebody they loved, and in the most gruesome manner. We know what that means. We know now every day you live like it is your only day, with no regrets ever. This is what I want to teach my son. To be kind, because there is too much evil in this world, and you only ever have control over your own actions.
I wonder how such trauma shapes a people. This gentleness with each other, is it a veneer or is it the glue that holds the society together? I am left reeling with questions. Is it their strong Buddhist faith that has kept them from going mad, or is it that once you have seen the depths of darkness that lurks in humanity, you do whatever you can to make sure you never witness it again. You take responsibility for each other, to protect each other. I left there with a deeply unsettling feeling, a knowing that can never ever be un-known. Every human is capable of unimaginable horror. Every single one of us. Every single one of us.
Cambodia seems adamant to not forget. Not to accept and move on. They are moving, but they can’t move on from something that is a tangled innate part of their history. There is strength in acknowledging the ugly. I wonder about us in Kenya. I wonder about the damage it is doing to us that we just cover up our skeletons with active forgetting, and pushy yells to accept and move on. We may move on, but we sure as hell have not accepted. No matter how deep you bury the skeletons, fragments of bone will always appear on the surface.
I realise what feels so unusual between Phirum and Sotha. There is a tenderness in their relationship that is rarely seen in public between father and son. A raw, open, vulnerable love that comes from the bitter knowledge that it can all be ripped away. A knowledge that each and every Cambodian now has embedded in their cultural memory. So everywhere you go, you see fathers and sons, show each other the kind of love that comes when you don’t know if this will be the last day you will ever have with each other.
Afterwards, we go for dinner. A bizarre meal of duck tongues and black chicken soup. Sotha’s choice of course.