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I didn’t like Phnom Penh (gallery) when I got here yesterday. It was raining, dark and seemed a bit sinister to me – possibly because of the “no guns, no knives, no handgrenades” signs outside the bars.
But I’ve warmed to it today. There’s some wonderful old colonial buildings, some photogenically tumbledown, so I had a nice hour snapping them until I remembered that why they’re so tumbledown – the Khmer Rouge destroyed many when they forcibly evacuated the city in 1975.
Then I went to the Tuol Sleng (gallery) detention and torture centre that the Khmer Rouge established in an old high school. When the Vietnamese liberated it,there were only seven people alive out of an estimated 17–20,000 souls who entered. The horrifying tiny cells are still there; the iron beds that people were shackled to for electric shocks are there. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, kept meticulous records of their genocide, so one of the most harrowing aspects of the exhibition is all the detainees’ mugshots. Some are children.
And then to the Killing Fields (gallery) themselves, where the prisoners of Tuol Sleng amongst others were murdered with hammers, axe handles, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. There’s a beautiful stupa filled with skulls of some of those who have been exhumed, but many still lie under the soil. As you walk around, you notice rags on the floor – but when you try to pick one up, you realise that they are the clothes people were wearing when they were murdered protruding up through the ground. There are bone fragments and teeth littering the pathways as you walk.
And then you realise that the Khmer Rouge were not just an aberration, and that the world isn’t any more vigilant or anxious to protect the weak now than it was in 1975—think of Rwanda, the massacres at Srebrenica, and the current genocide at Darfur.
Then, you thank your gods or your lucky stars that you live in a country where that kind of thing couldn’t happen – and then you wonder whether, given the right circumstances, you might not be floating the corpses of the women you’ve raped and the children you’ve slaughtered down the Thames, or the Rhine, or the Seine.
And then you wonder whether beneath each of our fragile veneers of civilisation, we aren’t each a grinning monster that would smash another human’s skull with a hammer just for enjoyment.
And then, if you’re like me, you go to the nearest bar that plays music and is full of the sound of conversation and laughter, and you drink until you stop thinking.