Wednesday, February 11, 2009

When will they ask for iPod Nano?

February 9

Mr. Cheun, a part-time tuk-tuk driver who teaches chemistry at the local community college, comes sharp at 8AM. We purchase a bag of rice, some plastic bags and cut a water bottle into a spade-like contraption.

Then we drive across Phnom Penh to its garbage dump. Along a wide road lined on both sides by squat warehouses we come to a vast open space of undulating heaps of human detritus. Multicolored, smoke in the air, air heavy with putrid smell. And then the children.

They are camouflaged within the colored patches of the garbage heaps, with their shirts and pants of veritable color, but a colony of moving, throbbing, living beings.
While Mr. Cheun unties the sac of rice and gets settled with the bags, I follow the children, some as young as four or five, others teenagers and some might be even older, rush on with sticks and poles as a garbage truck drives in, one every few minutes, and empties a load of smelly content into a new pile.
They probe through the garbage, quickly sorting some of the recoverable items for recycling, others for burning, a fire is lit nearby, a truckload is quickly sorted out, then the next truck arrives.

Mr. Cheun shouts out the news of rice. The children rush towards the tuk-tuk. But Mr. Cheun, an experienced teacher, quickly arranged them into three files. Little and tall, young and old, all in multicolored garments, some in rubber boots and gloves, some without, nearly all in hats, file on. Excitement is in the air, for a bag of rice, some have their hats ready—alas, some have porous baseball caps that leak nearly as much as are retained—others have the end of their shirt, or those who have neither get a plastic bag. One hapless boy has dropped his capful on the soil.
Immediate five boys and girls kneel down to help him scoop up the rice from the soil, except those that are mixed in with the red dust—a slightly older girl comes by and offers a bit from her own bag, and immediately two other boys do the same. All the while, Mr. Cheun keeps doing out the rice in measured amounts. Eager hands, little eyes, as much interest in my camera and the view in its back panel as in the bag of rice.

We empty the bag. The children are quieter now; some have gone back to their work. We wrap up. A guy comes forward and asks Mr. Cheun to tell me to hide my camera on my way out. I ask no question and put my camera away, and take a last look over my shoulder at the apocalyptic scene under a scorching sun.

When will these children ask for an X-box or an iPod Nano?

The next stop is the “killing fields”.

A signboard at the entrance reads, “Here is the place where trucks transporting victims from Tuol Sleng prison to be exterminated would stop”.
There is a memorial, with a few thousand skulls and bones that have been dug out. I can clearly see some of the skulls have obvious signs of being shattered by sharp blows. Here they did not shoot to kill—they beat their brains out. Children were swung and struck against a tree that still stands.

On another tree they used to hang a loudspeaker blaring music so that the dying moans of those that did not immediately die could not be heard. There are large depressions in the ground where there were mass graves from which the bones were recovered.

I get back into the tuk-tuk and head for the Tuol Sleng prison, the infamous S-21 of the Khmer Rouge.

In the city, in the midst of a very normal and natural neighborhood, in front of a little Buddhist pagoda, by the side of a nice outdoor restaurant, the Boddhi Tree, along a street lined with shoe shops and motorbike repair, there is a walled in compound with four buildings of the old high school that became the Tuol Sleng prison, the place where enemies of the people were brought in for interrogation, before being transported to the Killing Fields.

I do not have words to describe the horror within those walls. I have pictures to tell, which I will post in due time. So I will spare you the vivid descriptions. No, I am not chickening out—I have already filled in four pages of my note book, but just don’t have the nerve to recapitulate them again.

I need to unwind from here. So to the Boddhi Tree, for a lunch. Mr. Cheun joins in. I ask him about the Khmer Rouge time, but he was too young, only 5 years old, so has very sketchy memory of those times. He remembers his mother relating to him that his grandfather had implored his father, a government employee in Phnom Penh, to get out of the country. But stubbornly his father refused.

His mother and grandfather fled to the countryside, where they were separated and sent to labor camps. His mother survived. He went with his father to a village near Batam Bang, not too far from the Thai border, where his father began to work in a rice field in an effort to elude the Khmer Rouge. He was with him. Near the end of the Khmer Rouge period, his father was caught. I asked him what happened. “Oh he was killed of course!” Very strangely, however, he does not blame Pol Pot. He still thinks that Pol Pot might not have known about all the atrocities that were happening around Phnom Penh. He thinks Pol Pot might have been too preoccupied fighting with Vietnam, to recover some disputed territories on which Cambodians had a historic claim, to really have any time to bother about internal affairs. It was other people, who were really sick in their heads, who did all the atrocities.

Most scholars however do not agree with this view.

They think Pol Pot knew all. If you looked remotely like a Vietnamese, have a fairer skin than an average Khmer, your days were numbered, because you will be brought into S-21 to be interrogated on suspicion of collaboration with the enemy—even boys and girls as young as seven or eight, and babies with their mothers—there are photographs that document these young faces that look at the photographer’s lens, of boys and girls and men and women forced to sit on a wooden chair and place their head on a frame while a numbered tag hung on their neck as the photographer clicked his shutter.

I could not but be amazed at the artistic quality of some these portraits. You will get to see them eventually when I post them.
After the fall of Khmer Rouge, Mr. Cheun studied in a school then in a college. He had learned Vietnamese and Russian. But now it is too difficult to support his family with only income from his teaching job. He is a Buddhist, whose wife would like to do a worship today at 3PM, so we leave.

After a shower I head to a café to write my blog and edit the masses of digital photos accumulating in my hard drive every day.

A moon rises slowly over the Mekong.

Phnom Penh is alive again.

Whither next for the children of Phnom Penh? The future does not seem rosy from the smoke filled vista of the garbage dump.

Many questions still remain unanswered. Why did the Khmer Rouge do what they did? Why such a mass insanity? Was it just revenge? Is that what happens when unsophisticated people are suddenly given infinite power over other men?

Tomorrow I go to Kampot, a town near the sea, south of Cambodia, smack on the greater Mekong delta, where the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge once fought a pitched battle for control.

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