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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Death Tourism

To get to the Killing Fields about twenty KM outside of Phnom Penh, one can take a car, a motorbike, or a tuk-tuk. To get there, you drive past houses on stilts, road-side shops, green fields and small lakes. The road is busy with life, cows and dogs walking along the side of the road, kids ready to flock to you when you want to stop for a picture, people carrying vegetables or fruits or meats on their way homes, and traffic heading back towards the city. After awhile you turn off the main road and cross a small bridge that carries you over a river of green vegetation fronted by a scenic row of raised houses. Then you are on a dirt road lined by large, gnarled trees (and at times the trees grow right in the middle of the road). The air is filled with dust, and as you go down the road, you begin to see wooden shacks and houses, and in front of these children or wrinkled adults selling coconut milk, drinks, or a variety of clothing - a sure sign that a tourist destination is near. The drive is bumpy (especially in the back of a tuk-tuk) and dirty, and in February, the surrounding countryside is parched and dry, lined and scarred with dirt paths leading to the horizon in various criss-crossing designs. It is easy to imagine this place empty of the houses and the people. It is easy to see why the Khmer Rouge chose this area as the final resting spot for about ten thousand people. When you get there, after paying a two dollar entrance fee, you quickly encounter a tower of skulls, really a temple of sorts, which houses around eight thousand skulls, arranged by sex and age. The skulls make it clear if the person died from blunt force to the head, gun-shots, or if they were stabbed with a sharp object and enough force to penetrate the skull. Behind this is a large open area, quite peaceful with its small rolling landscape (sort of how I would imagine a golf course in Scotland to look), and further on, behind a thin line of trees, a wide open stretch of farm land. It would be quite easy to forget that those depressions were man-made, the site of mass graves, were it not for an occasional sign or pile of bones left on the ground.
A trip to the Killing Fields is almost inevitable followed or preceded by a trip to the Tuol Sleng prison, in the heart of Phnom Penh, just down the road from the bustling maze of covered shops known as The Russian Market. Tuol Sleng was once upon a time an elementary school before being co-opted for use as a political prison by the Khmer Rouge. The prisoners were of all ages and sex, and brought in from all over the country. They were brought as part of the effort of the K.R. to exterminate the educated of their country. In Tuol Sleng, one can see pictures taken of every single prisoner - many of the faces impassive, some leaping out with an expression of mixed fear, anger, and resignation, others bearing an innocent half-smile. There are also pictures of battered or dead prisoners. Some of the more visceral displays are found in rooms that were used for torture - these rooms containing the bed on which the prisoner was tied to, the instruments of tortured used, and finally, and prominently on the wall, a photo of the final effects of the torture. In other parts of the compound are more skulls, testimonies from those Cambodians who worked in the prison and who now must live with their actions (not that many people have ever been brought to trial in relation to the genocidal crimes in Cambodia), and a video room which shows a French-made documentary telling the story of one prisoner and her family. Taken as a whole, it is an impressive place- impressive in the sense that it should, in fact, leave an impression.
As we left, I did not feel such an overwhelming response, though. Of course, I was left unable to imagine the things that happened there, appalled by what Tuol Sleng stood for, but more I was considering previous trips I had made - to the KGB museum in Vilnius, to Dachau, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the bullet-riddled museum in Sarajevo dedicated to showing how supplies were smuggled in under the airport during the Serbian siege, and even to the "Torture Museums" that abound in central Europe. Tuol Sleng and the KGB museum were similar in many ways, with the preserved torture cells and instruments used. They both display pictures of the victims, and both, in their own way, attempt to add to the mood of death and morbidity with the use of music, recordings of prison-keepers voices, blood-stains, etc. From each I walked away with an unsettled feel in my stomach, but that unsettled feel had as much to do with a contemplation of what had occurred in the place as it did with my curiosity as to why such places do so well as tourist destinations.
Both of these places pale in scope with Dachau, and especially with Auschwitz, just as the Killing Fields represent a fraction of both the size and the amount of dead from Birkenau. This is not meant as a belittling of what happened in Cambodia (for indeed, millions died under Khmer Rouge rule), but it is something that must be mentioned. Why? Because that is exactly what I was thinking when I was walking around the mass grave sites near Phnom Penh. However, just as tourists every day make the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and often with the help of tourist agencies, so to do people make the trip to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng - most of the guest houses and hotels even arrange the trips for you, as these two trips represent part of the must-see itinerary of any trip to P.P. I am left to ask, why?
This is a question I suspect I've been asking myself for a long time, if only in my unconscious. Perhaps the first time I asked it was when my parents and I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. the first year it was opened, and for the first time I found myself engrossed with a museum. Perhaps the question was nagging me as I filled my head with books about the holocaust and other historic blood-lettings. But then, I might have been asking myself, why am I drawn to these subjects? Why am I drawn to the darkest apects of human behavior? The trip to the Holocaust should have been a hint to me that I was not the only one, and as my first trip to a death camp (Dachau) proved, there are indeed so many with this morbid curiousity that death tourism, it seems, provides a most stable, reliable source of visitors with those in areas unfortunate enough to have been the site of some atrocity.
The question remains, though, why? For answers, I have often peeked into the comments books left in places such as Tuol Sleng and the KGB museum to get an idea for what other people are saying or feeling as they leave. Inevitably, a majority of the comments center around the general thought of "How could this happen?" "This must never happen again!" "Please don't let this happen ever again," and variations of the theme. Also might be found some comments regarding the museum itself, normally described as "thoughtful," "thought-provoking," "powerful," "moving," or some variation of those themes. I know this sounds quite cynical, but I have come to feel that if this is the only thing one has to say, they shouldn't bother. It's pretty self-evident. This type of comment also leaves little insight as to why the person was drawn to go there in the first place.
Other comments invariably take on an edgier tone. Perhaps there might be a slap at the governments of countries that did nothing to help. There might also be comments that mention a wider historical truth - in the case of Tuol Sleng, mention of the U.S. bombing raids near the Thailand border. Then there are the comments that touch on present day truths - the truth that whatever people ask never to happen again is happening again. In the case of Tuol Sleng, the few comments that touched on present day realities mentioned Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Surprisingly, I saw no mention of Darfur.
Seeing the mention of U.S. run prisons in place as part of the "War on Terror" got me thinking. What if Iraq can ever get straightened out? What happens if the insurgency is suppressed and a civil war is avoided and an infrastructure is finally in place. What will intrepid travellers and tourists find when they arrive? Perhaps a series of cafes - many of them, at least in part, western-owned, set up along the Tigris River, along with a series of guest-houses and hotels. The guest-houses and hotels, perhaps, with signs in their lobbies advertising different day trips and overnight trips. One of them could be to Abu Ghraib (although I suspect that by then, the prison will no longer exist - or has it already been torn down? I feel like I may have heard something to that effect...). Inside the prison complex, if it is still around, could be separate exhibits, one dedicated to the things Saddam Hussein had done, and one dedicated to the abuses U.S. soldiers perpetrated. There could also be a separate journey advertised which would take people in air-conditioned vans up to the mass grave-sites where gassed Kurds were buried. I'm sure there could also be tours of Saddam's palace, and maybe a city tour of areas that had seen suicide bombs. It may be a cynical thought, but it does seem that one of the lasting legacies of violent, suppressive governments and war is the existence of at least one sure-fire tourist draw.
The question still remains, though. Why do people go to these places? Why are they not just destroyed the moment that option becomes feasible? The reason I have most heard sited for the existence of monuments to atrocity, as well as the reason for visiting them is to remind ourselves of...Of what? I don't buy the argument that these are left as monuments meant to remind us of what people can do to each other. We don't need these places to make ourselves aware. Just read the newspaper. The mere fact that no heads have rolled over the torture cases in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay (and why is this, by the way? Just because these actions were carried out as part of "The War on Terror?" I'm sorry, but that is not a high enough standard for justification...besides, as long as people can find justification for torture and murder, we will have sites dedicated to atrocity). Do we go to remind ourselves we were lucky to be born where we were born, or that we are mortal? Perhaps so that when we get back to wherever we are from, we can discuss it at a dinner party and come off as being compassionate? OK, I suspect I'm being a bit sardonic now.
The real reason I think we go to these places is to see the brutality of them. We go seeking the tales of torture and suffering and pain, to see the photos and the blood-stains. We seek to acknowledge some inner parts of ourselves - both the part that is capable of reverting to our most savage nature, the part of us that might be capable of carrying out such action, as well as the part of us that imagines being in the position of the captured. We wonder, perhaps, if we would have the strength to refuse orders if told to kill someone, or if we would have the strength to fight back if we were about to be killed. Or maybe that's just me.


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