I got up, I faffed a bit about what to wear, wasn’t too enthused by the picture of my face staring back at me from the mirror, considered how to fill my day. I had breakfast, went for a walk, visited Tuol Sleng, or S-21, where 17,000 or more people were tortured for months by the Khmer Rouge before being bashed over the head and dumped in the Killing Fields.
I watched all the other people like me, walking stickily in the heat around this school turned prison, trying to look solemn, fingering their guidebooks and already thinking about their next move.
I walked on into the busy bright city that thirty-five years ago was cleared of its population overnight and turned into a ghost town. I visited a market, a bookshop… I met friends for cocktails at the FCC and we watched the sun set and the Khmers and foreigners promenade along the riverfront; forgetful, enjoying life.
I don’t know how to process my day. I don’t know why I do what I do.
While I was at S-21 my friend Annie visited a wildlife rescue centre near Phnom Penh. She showed us her photos of macaques and gibbons rescued from miserable lives as toys and tourist attractions; described how they hung disconsolately from the bars, putting a paw out of the cage with a mute plea to be stroked.
“They all have such sad stories.” she said. “Look at the poor things,” their photographed faces so full of expression: soulful loneliness and irritation and desolation and disdain.
The faces of the Tuol Sleng prisoners – row after row of mug shots, the men in high-buttoned shirts, the women with short bobbed hair; nameless, numbered – are mostly expressionless. Or I don’t know how to read their expressions. I can’t see terror or defiance or anger or desperation or despair. They just stare out, one after another after another after another, and I want to look at every single one of them, pay attention, pay them their due because it’s the least I can do, recognise each and every one as an individual with all their hopes and secrets and faults and promise, with fathers mothers siblings spouses friends who loved them –
(Most of these people have never been identified; the records have been lost and maybe anyone who knew or loved them is also dead. There were only seven known survivors from Tuol Sleng)
– But it’s impossible. However much I try, they blur into one face. It’s easier to relate to the monkeys, mute creatures whose feelings we think we can read so clearly. But who knows if they really feel what we think they feel? They can’t tell us.
The prisoners of Tuol Sleng tell us, they told it in page upon page upon page of confession for a regime gone mad; all of it saying one thing – Make It Stop.