[Warning: Contains graphic descriptions]
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is just two blocks from my hotel here in Cambodia. The Museum is housed in the former prison itself, also known by its Khmer Rouge codename, S-21.
I took time to visit the Museum this afternoon. It is sobering, to say the least. I entered the very rooms where prisoners had been kept like animals and methodically tortured. I saw photographs of many of the victims, pictures that had somehow escaped the evidence-destroying attempts of the fleeing Khmer Rouge prison guards. I examined some of the torture implements, including a replica of a “water board,” now so infamous in the so-called US War on Terror. I shuddered at paintings of how these implements had been used—paintings by two of the twelve confirmed survivors of the horrors perpetrated here, saved because their artistic skills had proven useful to the regime. I witnessed the skulls of some of the prisoners who had been executed.
I paused to pray at the memorial stupa, asking God to have mercy on humanity so that such atrocities may never occur again. Asking, too, for wisdom and courage to resist such atrocities if it is ever in my power to do so.
As I turned to leave the Museum, I started to pass through what appeared at first to be a simple souvenir shop like those found at museums worldwide.
I read the sign: S-21 Survivor. The two artists whose work is displayed in the Museum were selling books of their paintings. In person, like an author at a book signing.
What would you do?
- Avoid eye-contact because their presence makes the whole experience too personal, too real?
- Buy one of their books as if that could make restitution for humanity’s inaction to stop Pol Pot’s madness?
- Make a show of interest by perusing their books, then leave without buying?
- Silently condemn the commercialization of such a tragedy by people whose suffering, though real, did not approach that of those who did not survive?
- Pass by without emotion, immediately betraying one’s resolve never to let the inhuman treatment of others that had taken place there happen again?