Today was a day of contrasts and juxtapositions. It was a day of two very different kinds of communities that grew up around two very different kinds of leaders. It was a day that brought the concept of the “cult of personality” into relief. Today I went to church and to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which – ironically – are right across the street from one another.
Sara and I went to the International Christian Fellowship church this morning. (www.icfpp.org) I for one have been craving the opportunity to fellowship with other Christians. It was relieving to see other Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who were also native English speakers and sympathized with my discomforts and hiccups of settling into life in Cambodia. It was refreshing to hear the Gospel preached (our sermon was on Luke 2:41-52 and Acts 15:25-29). It was a comfort to be surrounded by the body of Christ that was warm and welcoming. I talked with a wonderful Canadian couple who were getting ready to return to Vancouver after a year here in Cambodia. The husband was a retired minister in the Presbyterian church of Canada (oh Providence!) and the wife was a second grade teacher. They chatted with me about the ways to adjust, gave me tips on getting over jet lag and encouraged me with my discernment process as I move forward with becoming ordained. It was a joy to worship, a joy to be surrounded by people who welcomed me, and a joy to be in a place which, despite a very different take on church than my home presbytery, was still like home in all the best ways.
But this happy, calming experience is diametrically opposed to my experience of walking through the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In a real, physical sense these two places are opposing – on opposite sides of a street corner, one is colorful and bright, the other a bland grey cement enclosure. And in a metaphorical, spiritual, figurative sense they represent opposite ideals – one a refuge of love and hospitality, even in extreme circumstances, the other a symbol of the ugly manifestation of hate which blossoms from deep rooted and unchecked fear.
If you, like me, did not know what the Tuol Sleng prison was until this very day, let me give you a brief history lesson. Saloth Sar, know to us as Pol Pot, turned what had been a primary and secondary school campus into a detention center during his reign as head of the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1978 over 10,400 people were systematically imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Detainees ranged from intellectuals and members of the former Cambodian government, to “New City” Cambodians (rural refugees recently relocated to the city looking for work), doctors, religious leaders (monks, nuns) and anyone who could read. Essentially, anyone that the paranoid government decided to detain. The prison acted as a “high security” location instead of the hard labor camps that resembled ones used by Hitler and Stalin.
Tuol Selng was a place of torture. It was a place where men and women alike were systematically beaten. They were lashed, flogged and shocked with electrical current. Each prisoner was photographed, with meticulous documentation of who they were, where they came from and what “methods” were used to “break” them. The former classrooms were shut up, the open corridor windows covered in a thick fencing of barbed-wire (to discourage prisoners from committing suicide prior to their execution date). Some of the classrooms were subdivided into tiny 3’X5’ cells where detainees were kept in heavy iron shackles until execution – normally 6 to 8 months. The former playground exercise equipment was re-fashioned into the torture devices strategically located in a central quad so that every prisoner could hear the agonizing screams while waiting for their turn. It was a place of immense pain and suffering. Pol Pot, under the influence of his fear and suspicion of all those with education and material gains, turned a place of education on its head and – in sad irony – out of a school where fear is dispelled through education he created a nightmare complex like the gulags and concentration camps.
The museum had dozens of glass boards with the pictures of the many men and women who died in that prison. (Photos can be seen here – www.tuolsleng.com) They were black and white mug shots, hundreds upon hundreds in neat rows. Each photo had a number; the scrupulous records of exactly who the regime eliminated. There were pictures of the broken bodies of men after torture, stills of women chained to beds and color paintings of the different torture methods used. There was a room in which several unidentified skulls were kept locked in a glass case – about four dozen of them. Along the walls of this room were photographs of large mounds of human bones that the prison officials would make. Some of them were formed into designs. Some were just rows upon rows of femurs and tibias. It reminded me eerily of Heart of Darkness.
However, what cracked my desensitized heart were the several hundred photographs of children. Let me say that again, so that the impossible weight and horror sinks in: several hundred children. Wide-eyed little boys. Smiling baby girls. Frightened children. Precious children.
The Khmer Rouge killed more than 20,000 children during its four year reign from 1975 to 1978. In that four year period, the Khmer Rouge killed over 2 million people – over 21% of Cambodia’s population – from systematic terminations, work camps, slavery and constant combat. That’s one in five people. One out of every five of you reading this right now would be dead. Would it be you?
Pol Pot was a sick man. His mind was twisted by hate. Hate – an extreme form of fear – had mangled his heart so completely that he was incapable of seeing the humanity in the ‘other.’ The officials that sanctioned and ran Tuol Sleng allowed themselves to become so desensitized that they lost sight of the common humanity between themselves and their victims. Did Hitler not do the same thing to Jews in Germany? Did the Interahawme not do the same thing to the Tutsis in Rwanda?
But there is another element to this prison visit that is more disturbing and heart-breaking. As I drank in all those faces of the men and women, and especially the precious children, I could not help but remember the part that the United States played in this tragedy. I as an American citizen cannot walk away with clean hands. My government support the Khmer Rouge despite confirmation that Pol Pot engaged in “criminal behavior” (and despite the fact that he executed several Western intellectuals) simply because he opposed the military forces in Vietnam. We are linked to this because every time we allow for the infringement of human right anywhere, it becomes a threat to human rights everywhere.
I don’t have children. But, I hope and pray that one day I am blessed with the joy of being a mother. I pray that I get to hold my precious child and love him more than life itself. Looking at all those tiny faces I cannot help but think about my life, my actions, my place. Water boarding is torture. Guantanamo Bay is not too far off from this prison center. How far do we have to go before we become complacent parties in mass genocide?
It was a day of parallels and paradox. It was a day of two men who couldn’t be more opposite. Pol Pot, a murderous fanatic who developed a cult which followed his extreme Marxist beliefs and supported him while he allowed his fears of the “other” to morph into unadultered hate and dehumanization. And Jesus, a man who grew a cult out of the Jewish tradition, preached a gospel of love and non-violence and welcomed all because each human being is a child of the Most High God. Pol Pot died of heart failure while under house arrest in 1998 without even having to go to trial for his crimes. Jesus died innocently on a cross, the lamb of God who took away the sins of all the world. Today was a day of two very different men, one who chose love and the other who chose fear. In its’ simple dichotomy of human weakness versus holy strength it is quiet, and moving, and profound.