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Life and Death at S-21
Rating : ( 4.3 )

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Aug 05, 2003 19:50

Pros: historical place
Cons: sad history

It's not a matter of if you will be affected by the high school-cum-concentration camp Tuol Sleng (or Security Office 21; 'S-21' for short); it's a matter of when. If it not when you first lay eyes upon the gallows that greet you upon entry, then it will likely be when you discover the torture devices employed here a few rooms later, medieval in their efficacy and simplicity, shocking in the fact that these iron maidens and dunking tubs--seemingly relics of times more barbaric--were in fact employed hardly a quarter century ago by men in the age of televisions, telephones and 747s. If it is not these testaments to the macabre sort of creativity men are still capable of, then it will almost certainly be the legions of skulls that are arrayed on shelves in rooms that were once used for mathematics and science. There's no pomp or circumstance to it, no sort of deference for the dead, no overwrought presentation, just hundreds of human heads, sans flesh, stark and real and undeniable. And if it is not the skulls, then it is the coup de grace in the final rooms: stains, intermittent and unassuming on the tile floors, hardly worth a second look in a country where so much has been spilled in so many places--on sidewalks and in streets and restaurants and bus stations.

It is blood, so deep in its crimson that it borders on blackness. Incredibly, it is still there, nearly three decades after it was let from its victims. Twelve thousand of them died here in the three years and eight months in which Pol Pot and his boys enjoyed absolute power in this country.

With so much death around, it's easy to be overcome by the sheer depravity of which we human beings are still capable; it's precisely the point of the place, why the gallows have not been torn down, the buildings razed, the blood mopped up. All of it says 'never again' in a voice so insistent and eloquent that words are virtually meaningless in comparison.

But I must confess that, amidst the darkness and inhumanity that pervades the place, I did see something beautiful. Two things, in fact.

One in life, one in death.

The place is filled with mugshots, black and white photos of the prisoners, taken by the Khmer Rouge guards upon both 'entry' and 'exit' (euphemisms, not so subtle, for living and dead). In the faces of the living--newly admitted and terrified beyond measure--is depression, resignation, but mostly a mortal fear that renders them incapable of doing anything other than looking wide-eyed into the lens, deer in the worst sort of headlights. In the faces of the dead--emaciated, bludgeoned beyond recognition, burnt black with gasoline--last moments are immortalized in final rictus. And those final moments, however they were arrived at, by whatever measure, universally bespeak the same thing.


Amidst the mugshots of the living--a collection that fills three rooms, by the way--amongst all those faces awash with fear, there is one man, early twenties perhaps, chained back-to-back with another detainee (the standard method at S-21: two prisoners for the price of one set of shackles; faced in different directions, any sort of conspiratorial dialog was that much more difficult, and that much easier for the guards to spot). In the photo, his shackle-mate ducks from view in the background, no doubt at the behest of the guards taking the picture, while our man actually leans forward, cocksure and unflappable, staring directly into the lens. Everything in that subtle but adamant curvature of the spine, the way his shoulders are squared, the way his neck is fully extended, the way his eyes apologize for nothing, the way his jaw is thrust forward proudly despite what are almost certainly terminal circumstances he finds himself in, bespeaks to me one word. Indomitability. Yes, you hold my life in your palm, these black and white eyes say, but there is one thing you do not possess and that you will never possess. My soul. It is moving beyond measure. And it suggests to me, in the crucible of mortal choices this place was in '78, that men are capable not only of the most abject evil, but also of almost preternatural states of inconquerability. The soul, it would seem, even in the most execrable conditions, can remain untouched, stolid, and pure.

The second image is of death, housed in another room reserved for post-mortem pictures. They're grotesque, of course, not easy to absorb. But again, there is one (down in the bottom right corner, should you ever be there and are looking) that borders on sublime. Where the rest of his companions in death lay stiffly in rictus, this young Cambodian stares ceilingward, eyes hooded but not closed (the Buddha again), not staring in death but gazing. Partnered with that are two things that suggest the most blissful of reposes--his hand resting on his chest, fingertips idly upon his sternum as if entertaining a far-away thought, and his lips, the way they curl upward at a barely discernible five or ten percent, like he's just become privy to a secret that the guards will never know.

If pictures speak a thousand words, then this one conveys a thousand times that again. I get the feeling that an entire library could not house all that is imparted in that enigmatic gaze. It's a language outside of diction and dialect, delivered from a place where words are no longer necessary. And strangely, though I don't understand it, I am solaced by it. It suggests to me that there is more, a continuation of things after an event we all perceive to be terminal.

And whatever that continuation is, there is promise in it. For if a dying man can smile in its face, it must be glorious.