Tourist in a Torn Land

You want to shoot machine gun?” the motorcycle driver shouted over the sound of the traffic.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“It’s OK! Every day, I take tourist, shoot machine gun. No problem. Twenty dollars for clip in AK-47.”
I thought about it.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s go.”

The driver turned the bike down a side street, and we headed out of Phnom Penh. In the Khmer language, Penh is a woman’s name. Phnom means hill. Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia.

Cambodia is a place where people with machine guns and iron rods and scythes and clubs committed murder on a genocidal scale in the late 1970s. Out of a population of 7 million, about 2 million died from 1975 to 1979, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

My driver’s name was Moto Nick. In Phnom Penh, motorcycles outnumber cars 10 to 1. The cheapest form of transport is the moto dop, a young man on a motorcycle. Moto Nick agreed to haul me around for half a day for $5.

The French-planned boulevards of Phnom Penh flow with moto dops. There are no lights or turn lanes. When Moto Nick wanted to go left, he just turned into the oncoming traffic.
The first time it happened, I thought we might die, but everyone calmly swerved around us, and we passed unmolested onto the next street. The way the traffic moved in loose synchrony, it was like being a part of a school of fish.

“OK, shoot machine gun, then you want girl?”

“No. Definitely no,” I said.

“Most tourists, they shoot machine gun, then have girl. You can have very small girl – virgin – no problem. They Vietnamese.”

“No, no, no. . . . Everybody does that? Americans?”“American, German, Japan men, England men. First shoot gun, then have girl.”

Southern Cambodia is flat – it’s the flood plain of the massive Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. The sun burned down on rice fields, rows of coconut palms, small houses made of concrete blocks and corrugated steel, huts made of bamboo and thatch. In the swampy roadside ditches, pink lotus flowers bloomed.

We passed the airport, then farm fields. April is the hottest month in Cambodia. Even in the wind, droplets of sweat rolled down my neck.

The traffic thinned out to a few trucks and other motorcycles. We turned down a dirt track. Sleepy men in fatigues cradling AK-47s under their arms waved us past a checkpoint. I felt a little scared about being around men with guns in Cambodia.

I was in Phnom Penh for the same reason I’d visited Auschwitz in Poland 10 years ago: to see a place where great evil had unfolded. In Auschwitz, it had been the decaying machinery of the Holocaust. In Phnom Penh, it was the Killing Fields and other landmarks of the psychopathic Khmer Rouge.

Why do I go to such places? The world is beautiful and terrible. One extreme gives meaning to the other, I believe. Inside me, too, are such polarities: hope and pessimism, love and hate. I didn’t relish the idea of visiting the Killing Fields, but I think part of being human is facing the ugliness of being human.

I didn’t think I’d be facing that ugliness until the next morning, when I had hired a guide to take me to see what the Khmer Rouge had done. But in Cambodia, I was learning that you don’t have to go to any particular place to see the damage of the past alive in the present.

Inside the compound, Moto Nick parked under a warehouse-sized, open-sided thatched roof.

“There’s the big sergeant,” he said, and laughed nervously, pointing to a stocky, shirtless man wearing a thick gold necklace.

Five men in fatigue pants and T-shirts lounged in lawn chairs in front of a row of booths facing a dirt hill. At one end of the building was a bamboo wall covered with machine guns, pistols and rocket launchers.

One of the men brought me a cold can of Coke and beckoned me to sit down. The sergeant dropped a printed menu of possible weapons for me to use. AK-47, M-16, M-60, K-57. For $15 I could throw a hand grenade. The price for shooting a hand-held rocket-launcher was negotiable.

I opted for the AK-47: 30 bullets for $20. The sergeant took one off the wall, shoved a curved clip into the magazine, walked me to one of the booths and handed me the gun. It was heavy and solid, the wooden stock worn smooth and dark by other hands.

The target was paper, a torso and head in silhouette, about 25 yards away. I pulled the trigger. The gun pounded into my shoulder. I pulled the trigger again and again. I asked the sergeant to set it on full-auto, and the last seven bullets exploded out of the barrel. My ears rang, and my shoulder felt numb. I put the gun down carefully.

A young couple had arrived in the meantime, and the man was about to shoot at a different target, also with a Chinese-made AK-47. In less than a minute, his 30 bullets were gone. Not many of them hit the target. He was from Scotland, he said, his name was Simon Waters, and he was 22.

“What did you think of it?” I asked.

“It’s quite scary how powerful a gun makes you feel when you’re shooting it,” he said, and paused as if surprised by his own words.

Then he picked up a .45 pistol and took aim at the paper target.That afternoon, covered in sweat and road dust and gunpowder, I attended a news conference at Le Royale, one of Phnom Penh’s growing number of premium hotels. The tourism minister of Cambodia, Veng Sereyvuth, was appearing before attendees and reporters at a conference on tourism in Southeast Asia. In a suit and tie, with neatly styled salt-and-pepper hair, Sereyvuth spoke English fluently. His answers were glib and polished.

With a broad smile, he deflected questions about overdevelopment and corruption at Angkor Wat, the complex of ancient stone temples that is Cambodia’s biggest tourist draw. He spoke of the importance of improving the roads and of smoothing the visa process to allow easier access to the country.

He said that 400,000 visitors came to Cambodia last year, a 41 percent increase over the previous year. He said the country hopes to have 800,000 visitors by 2002.

A reporter asked him how important tourism was to Cambodia, where the average monthly salary is less than $50.

“It’s a priority for the government,” he said. “Actually, we’re feeding everyone through tourism now.”

By 8 a.m. the next day, it was already very hot. My guide, Sophanarith Ou, took a deep breath and began.

“This is S-21, that means Security Office 21, the biggest one in Kampuchea,” he said.
The Khmer Rouge had used that name for this country. Khmer is the word for the majority ethnic group in Cambodia, as well as for the language they speak. Rouge means red in French. The Khmer Rouge were fanatic Maoist Communists.

Ou, 29, was very slender, with a birthmark over his left eye. His ears stuck out, and he had a high, soft voice. He wore blue pleated slacks and a crisply ironed, white button-down shirt. When speaking of the Khmer Rouge regime, Ou generically referred to it – and to anyone associated with it – as “Pol Pot,” the leader who was Brother No. 1.

“Before Pol Pot, this was a high school,” Ou said. “During Pol Pot, he turned it into prison. Seventeen thousand people come here, and only seven survive. They are all dead now, died from heart breaking or other health problem.”

We stood in a courtyard formed by three brick and concrete buildings, each three stories tall. Crudely made nets of barbed-wire fronted the open verandas. Ou said they were not there to prevent escapes – there was no place to escape to in Kampuchea. The whole country was, in essence, a prison camp. Instead, the barbed wire was to keep the prisoners from jumping to their deaths before they’d been sufficiently tortured.

A row of round, deeply green frangipani trees covered in white blooms stood on one side of the courtyard, shading the 14 graves of the last prisoners to be killed in S-21. Towering coconut palms hung limply in the still air.

S-21 is commonly called Tuol Sleng, or “Hill of the Poison Tree,” Ou said.

I knew some things about Tuol Sleng already, from reading about the Khmer Rouge, and although I wanted to see it, I knew it would be heart-rending. I could tell from Ou’s body language and tone that this was not easy for him, either.

But the tightness in my chest came from somewhere else, I think. Even if I’d had no idea what this place represented, or what had happened here, I think I would have felt it. It came up through the ground; it radiated through the air. It was a tangible sensation of dread.

This is what it means to say a place is haunted. I’d felt it before at Auschwitz. Evil permeates, evil lingers. It can be felt long after the dead and their tormentors are gone.

We started at Building A, where “important” people were tortured. There were no doors on the rooms. In the first room there was a naked iron bed frame. On the floor was a metal ammunition box, with a jumble of rusted metal tools inside. A chain hung from the bed, along with a set of leg shackles made from a straight iron bar with two horseshoe shaped loops attached. A poster-sized photo was bolted to the wall under a yellowing piece of plexiglass. It showed a bloated corpse strapped to this bed with the leg irons and the chain.

“When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, they took this picture,” Ou said. “They leave room the same. See blood stain here on photo? Here it is, still on floor. This room is just the way the dead see with their last eyes.”

This is what that man saw before he died: mismatched checkerboard linoleum. Cracked plaster ceiling. Shuttered window, broken pane of glass. A slate blackboard. He died in a classroom.

In Building B, Ou showed me the 3- by 6-foot cells, where prisoners were chained to the floor. We looked at the torture devices. Electric whips. A giant box in which prisoners could be suspended for dunking. Pincers for pulling out fingernails. A small cage that could be attached to the prisoner’s hand. The interrogators would fill it with scorpions.

The average prisoner in Tuol Sleng lasted 60 days, Ou said. Then, when they had confessed to whatever imagined crimes they were accused of, they would be taken to Cheoung Ek, the Killing Field, about 9 miles out of town, where they’d be bludgeoned with farm implements (bullets were too expensive) and dumped in shallow mass graves.

The warders took photos of almost every prisoner before they were killed, and one room in Building B is filled with hundreds of their faces, looking into the camera with the knowledge of their own horrible death squarely in front of them.

When we stood outside again, I took slow, deep breaths. Ou squinted in the bright sun. I asked him how old he was when this happened.

“I was child, 3 or 4 years old, when Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh,” he said. “My father was a professor. He taught English.”

He said that the people of Phnom Penh greeted the Khmer Rouge soldiers as heroes when they arrived in their black pajamas and traditional red scarves. Heroes.

“We thought only a new government, then things would be like before.” But the Khmer Rouge immediately evacuated the cities.

“My father didn’t know Pol Pot trick. When they came, Pol Pot asked, ‘What’s your job? Now the country is liberated, we need new people to help with new idea to restore country.’ After my father told truth, they took him away. We ask, ‘Where you taking our father?’ They say, ‘He is going to learn policy.’ “

Ou paused, and his eyes seemed to look inward for a moment. With his arms slack at his sides, he was watching it happen over again in his mind. “I stand here, and my father move far, far, far out of sight, and we never see him again. All those people who ‘learn policy’ never came back again.

“There are many things to say about Pol Pot time. All day we were working in the countryside. I’m a small boy. In the morning, I have small basket, I collect our fertilizer. My brother is very, very small. He lived in different commune with my mother. Sometimes in lunchtime, I meet her. We crossed to different pasture, and I would see her – only for a few minutes.” His expression opened and he smiled, remembering those meetings. The smile faded again.

“At night we were afraid to starve, so we didn’t sleep. We would go to rice field and try to steal rice.”

The population – now all living in the countryside – divided on class lines. The subsistence farmers resented the burden represented by the city people, who were the first killed and the last to be fed in the collectives.

Ou got lost in remembering. Surrounded by ghosts, I heard every word. My attention sharpened. I saw his shadow on the ground moving as he moved, the beads of sweat on his forehead, the white blooms that fell off the dark green trees and landed silently on the grass behind him.

“When the Vietnamese invade, I met a soldier in the jungle, and he asked me, ‘Do you know where any Pol Pot official is?’ I had never heard that name before. We didn’t know anything. We called it Angkor – the Organization. We lived in a dark place.

“In my whole life I cannot forget what happened. I remember very clearly.

“I used to see even people steal a potato – they say it belong to the Organization. Even a chili. One chili, they say it belong to the Organization. Most people then, people very hungry. They steal potato, and they were killed.

“I saw one man, he stole a chicken. He put the chicken in a kettle. It looked like he was boiling water, but the chicken was underneath. Pol Pot found out, tie the kettle around his neck, the hot kettle. So we feel terrible, we feel very fearful.

“What we saw, we thought, ‘Our life must be lost this evening.’ So we don’t speak what we saw, we say we didn’t see it.”

I asked Ou if it was hard reliving these memories for tourists, coming back to S-21 day after day. “Today, no, it’s not difficult, but before, it was very strong emotion. And when I first come here, I look for photograph of my father, but now, even if I saw him, I would not recognize him.”

We got into the van and began the 9-mile drive to Cheoung Ek, where the bodies from S-21 ended up.

Pol Pot died in 1998, but he was never punished for his crimes, and many Khmer Rouge officials are alive and free. I asked Ou if that made him angry.
“We think there’s enough suffering, so we don’t blame any one leader. When I tell someone my bad terrible life, they tell me one bad terrible life even more terrible. I still have my mother and brother. I am lucky.”

We parked next to several other vehicles in a gravel parking lot. I was numb.

I remember the farm fields around the place, the grove of trees shading the shallow pits of the mass graves. In the middle of Cheoung Ek, where at least 17,000 people were put to death with clubs or farm implements, is a five-story glass-walled tower filled with shelves. More than 8,000 skulls sit there in stacks, facing out the windows on the place that their “last eyes” saw.

In the rainy season, Ou said, whole skeletons still emerge from the mud.

As we wandered among the graves, I felt crunching under my feet. I crouched down to see. It was pieces of human bone breaking under my shoes. Scraps of clothing stuck out of the dirt: a flower-print blouse, part of a child’s sock.

Back in Phnom Penh, I carried on with my tourist’s itinerary, Buddhist temples and the Royal Palace, but there, too, was the omnipresent evidence of human suffering.

I turned down another dozen opportunities to have sex with a prostitute. I saw dozens of white male tourists who did not turn the opportunity down.

That’s sad, not only because it perpetuates a ritual form of abuse, but because the HIV-infection rate among Cambodian hookers is thought to be as high as 50 percent.

Strolling the boulevards, I saw dozens of beggars missing hands or feet. Cambodia was so heavily mined during the Vietnam War and afterward, during the war between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese, that the mines still mutilate people every day.

I thought a lot about America’s culpability for what happened in Cambodia. The United States dropped more than 540,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War (that’s more than three times the amount the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II).

Bombing proved to be a very ineffective means of killing Communist soldiers, but a fantastically effective way to recruit more of them for the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge. Estimates vary on how many innocent Cambodians died in the bombing. The numbers range from 100,000 to 800,000. None of those people, to me, had a face. It was hard for me to get deeply emotional about their deaths. It was just numbers.

Maybe that’s why it’s important to see places such as Cheoung Ek, to see the stacks of skulls with one’s own eyes. Or to stand in S-21 and look at those awful photos. These were the lives. These are the tragedies.

One of those faces is vivid to me now, seared into my memory: A woman with shoulder-length black hair, big dark eyes and full lips stares directly into the lens. She clasps an infant to her breast. Her expression is naked and honest, reflecting both defiance and defeat. She remained beautiful as she held the life she brought into the world in her arms. But she was looking into the heart of human ugliness, and the knowledge of two imminent deaths: hers and her child’s.

Her gaze is so intense, it’s as if she wanted to say something to someone who was not there. I wondered if she hoped someone would see the photo someday, if someone would be her witness.
It was hard for me to put together a coherent thought about what I’d seen for a couple of days after leaving Phnom Penh.

I felt torn inside. Stained. The same way I’d felt after visiting Auschwitz. Having been in these places, I have no problem saying that I believe in ghosts. Not shimmering apparitions that visit people in their beds at night, but ghosts all the same.

I have felt them, in truth, as a pain in my heart.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune. June 6, 2000