Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Celled in a Photograph

Someone’s face looked at me through the paned glass—eyes bulged in anger, a mouth ready to bite. Perhaps this boy was the son of doctor or government official. His mother was a city girl who stayed at home, tending to her seven children. Or perhaps, she owned a small jewelry boutique like my mother’s mother. His father was a Professor of Khmer Literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The boy’s parents fled their homes when the Rouge arrived, sewing jewels into their undergarments. They were sent to their graves, their pockets full of riches, their bodies rotting under the sun. Or perhaps, the boy was from Kampong Thom, the same province my father grew up in. Maybe he was an orphan. Maybe, it was his unlucky day, and he was mistaken for a city boy.

Somehow, the boy was taken to Tuol Sleng, a high school turned torture prison. The Khmer Rouge called it S-21. In Building B, there are mug shots of men and women, young and old, even infants all peering out from glass windows. Though thousands of faces were before me, some stayed with me more than others. These unsettled spirits unsettle me.

I entered expecting to see clothes strewn in dried blood, and bones on the iron beds. I entered thinking I would be immediately cast back in time. It only seems normal that the place had been sanitized and made proper for viewing, seeing as it now serves as a national memorial and museum. “Well they’re not going to leave the bodies and blood there,” a friend said to me. There is this tremendous need for the sanitization of everything as a way to fictionalize reality so that it is appropriate, so that we can handle it. So that we are less shocked, less apt to cry, less likely to have our memories marred by what we see. Shielded from what is really real. What would happen if viewers could observe the former prison at its rawest—without the googly-eyed signs indicating that one cannot smile at the site, without the straw brooms in the corner of every room waiting to sweep up dust tracked in by tourists, sweeping away the past along with them.

Perhaps I say these words with a lack of sensitivity for those who endured the strife of the war thirty years past. Those who might re-visit the place where their mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, friends, and enemies lost their lives. For these people, maybe they need the sanitization of the museum. Maybe they need a purer reality so as to not be further scarred by scents, stains, the scuff of a shoe on the floor. Perhaps, the memories of those lost are enough to produce enough tears for a lifetime. Maybe there is a need for the plexi-glass encasing objects and photographs of the past, serving as a wall of separation between what was then and what is now.

A book on Buddhism I’d started reading a few days ago states that all emotions are rooted in pain. A true Buddhist must believe this, and accept it. The suffering of the estimated 20,000 people killed at this detention and torture center is physical and mental pain. It is a pain that transcends time, moving from the past into the present into the future. It becomes pain that is felt in moments of love, times of celebration, and in lost-ness.

I moved from room to room at S-21 and building to building. I began in Building A. Each room is a former classroom and later a cell. Some still have Khmer script on the chalkboard. The discolored yellow walls have etches in them. Whether these were from museum visitors or the people held captive, I’m not sure. One reads Pol Pot=Saloth Sar, the name of the former Khmer Rouge leader, carved in incisive letters. All emotion is pain. Twin-sized iron beds are also found in most rooms. On these beds or next to them is a long rod with an opening that was used to secure the prisoner to the bed during torture and sleep. The only other object in the room is a 9 X 5 iron box—the toilet. I said a prayer in each of these rooms before I left. I felt like I made up for the past tens years I’d stopped praying.

I wonder if the spirits are still trapped in these rooms—no longer by iron shackles, but by today’s visitors of their graves? Because of this disturbance, they are still unable to sleep. What if they feel like they have to re-live their worst moments forever?

Stepping into Building B, I met the mugshots of everyone who went through the detention center. Long rooms are lined with 12 X 12 portraits. Just faces. Each one with its own story, its own expression, its own pained emotion. I came across the faces of women whose features I share: almond eyes, large lips, and a small nose. Under the KR, no one should look strikingly beautiful. The goal was to fit in. Women wore their hair short and cropped at the neck. Each woman met me with strangely familiar eyes, as if they could’ve been my aunts, or cousins, neighbors or classmates. They looked at me with somber faces, telling me I could’ve been one of them.

I came across some cheerful faces and wondered how anyone could find anything to smile about while imprisoned. Their eyes were bright, their smiles unfeigned. I reasoned that maybe they had been tortured into a state of complete delirium. And so, they placed themselves in another place and time where they could find happiness and smiled.

“They smiled because they were tricked. Pol Pot was a master of rhetoric,” a friend said when I asked her about the smiling faces. “They were told they were about to be freed. They thought the torture and interrogation part was over. That’s why.” Their spirits must have thought How foolish I was to have believed them. These joyful faces are frightening—eager eyes and wide smiles and believing hearts until the very end.

I close my eyes and think of a photograph I hold in my memory of my mother’s mother. Her hair is tucked neatly behind her ears. Her back is straight. Her hands hang loosely and delicately by her sides. She wears a plain sarong and white blouse. Her face is thlay thnouw, exuding grace, sophistication, and femininity. I think back to the catalogued faces in Tuol Sleng, the women peering out from glass cases. If their faces are trapped there, what about their spirits? There is the Cambodian belief that a photograph is not just a snapshot or an image on paper. A photograph contains one’s essence and spirit. Looking into the glass cases, I hope that there are not spirits bound by photographs of their faces, still fighting after their deaths to get out.

For more pictures, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing post. Honest, sensitive, brave. The photos are amazing, and I love the personal element you bring in.

    I really can't say enough about this post, and the blog in general. Definitely one of my favorites. Thanks.