I've been very happy this winter, which is almost surprising given the extremely brutal and depressing books I've been reading in preparation for recent trips to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Especially Cambodia has stood out as I have sunk deeper and deeper into literature about the Khmer Rouge and their insanity. In Cambodia I was brought back to memories of China in the 1980s when I looked at people of a certain age and wondered "Were you a victim or the victimizer?" In Cambodia I often had the strange feeling that some people were hiding a face of horror under their "outer" face, their recent memories thinly masked by the "happy" veneer of tourism, time and the desire to move on. The worst of the atrocities stopped in 1979 but horror continued far into the late 1990s.
Today I read in the Washington post (see article here) that Kaing Khek Iev, more commonly known as Comrade Duch, will possibly finally come to trial. Duch was the director of the Tuol Sleng torture centre in Phnom Penh, also known as S21. He surfaced in 1999, recognized by the photographer Nic Dunlop who had been doggedly tracking him for years. I have just finished Dunlop's amazing recounting of this very long journey: The Lost Executioner. Before The Lost Executioner I had read several personal accounts of the Khmer Rouge time: First They Killed My Father and Lucky Child by Loung Ung, Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields (compiled by Dith Pran), Stay Alive My Son, by Pin Yathay. But nothing has gripped me as much as the harrowing personal account of the only foreigner to have escaped incarceration and interrogation by Comrade Duch: François Bizot's The Gate. Extremely well-written with a bitter, fierce, palpable ANGER that jumps off the page; it is both beautiful and painful to read. These books are important for all those who have no voice, who have disappeared without a trance, with no record of their ever having existed. You only exist as long as you are remembered.
The atmosphere at Tuol Sleng is - not unexpectedly - strange and unnerving and as difficult to erase from your mind as the bloodstains the observant visitor will notice on the floor. Upon arrival you are surprised to see that it is located inside the city, in a pleasant, relatively affluent part of town. Across the street is a very nice apartment building looking down into the grounds of the former school that has changed little from the 1970s when it was one of the most gruesome torture centers ever in existence. Of course, at that time, Phnom Penh was a ghost town, a capital city almost entirely devoid of a population. Who could hear the screams? Still they were careful to make tall walls around the complex and enclose everything with barbed wire and only come and go at night. When asked if the apartments across the street were cheap to rent, seeing as they had, in my mind, such a horrifying view, my Cambodian local guide replied, "Of course not! They are very expensive, this is a nice part of town!" Do not the Cambodians still believe in ghosts? They must, their country is full of them.