Brutality and Equanimity

This morning: S-21. The former high school that was turned by the Khmer Rouge into a prison. A place where people were tortured in defense of the “revolution.” Of the 14,000 or so prisoners who walked through its doors, only a couple of handfuls survived. There are two main “exhibits”. The first is room after room of photographs shot by the Khmer Rouge themselves to document the people under interrogation. The second is the building were people were held. The bottom floor classrooms were walled off with brick to make individual cells for the “important”prisoners. The top floors were for mass detention. Also on display were some of the equipment used for torture and photographs and stories of people who were lost and assumed to have died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, including Khmer Rouge revolutionaries who died during its purges.

It was a sick and brutal business. The place today is awash with memory and its ghosts. According to Joy, the stench that formerly permeated the site has gone, but to my inner senses, the cloud of suffering and death has not gone away.

And then this afternoon: the National Museum. A beautiful building housing the largest collection of Khmer statuery in the world; most of it religious.

There have been two major influences on religion in Cambodia – Hinduism and Buddhism. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen more statues (small and large) of Vishnu and the Buddha in one place. How cool and serene they looked, especially the Buddha. My favorites were the ones with the slight smile. Not a smile of hidden knowledge – nothing so esoteric as that. No, to me it was more like the smile of a survivor. A smile that says, “I’ve looked into the terrible maw of the universe and passed through to the other side. This is my seat, my place in the universe, and from it, I will not budge. Suffering and joy may pass before me, and I will take part in them, but they do not define who I am.”

And don’t think it wasn’t lost on me, this day’s irony. S-21 in the morning and the Buddha in the afternoon. How to get from one to the other, though, that’s the mystery. And I don’t mean anything so mundane as car, tuk tuk, or moto. The Buddha’s life was sculpted such so as to become free from suffering. Not its avoidance, not hiding from it, but from witnessing its impermenance and from suffering’s origins in ignorance, fear, and hatred. In understanding that everything is connected to everything else.

Tuol Sleng was once a school named Ponhea Yat. Then it became a prison called S-21. Now, as Tuol Sleng it is a kind of school once more.

Things change; they always do. The cliche is that it is the one thing that a person can count on. I don’t have any answers, and I don’t have a snappy ending to this post. What I do know is that I’ve witnesssed two faces of Cambodia today. Maybe that’s enough for now.


~ by Samer on August 11, 2007.

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