"For those who take the stand for freedom and honor."
By Grassroots Coordinator Matthew Lloyd-Thomas
I first visited Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison that played a role in the deaths of some 20,000 Cambodians. I’m sure that plenty of you have followed the trial of Duch, the man who ran the prison during the four years of the Khmer Rouge. Just as Auschwitz is an enduring testament to the brutality of the Holocaust, so too is Tuol Sleng to the Cambodian Genocide. Only a moment after stepping off the street into the prison, I entered a room containing a single bed and a chain. For the four years that the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia, so-called VIP political prisoners, accused of spying for the CIA or KGB, were chained to the bed and beaten, often to death. In the other buildings were cells for less important prisoners measuring one by two meters. Those, perhaps, are the most chilling. Stepping into the small, dark cell, I could almost feel the beaten and starved prisoners around me, hear their breath, and sense the terror at what they surely knew their fate to be.
Later in the afternoon, I traveled outside of Phnom Penh to the Choeung Ek, a site where the prisoners of Tuol Sleng were sent for execution. Located amongst quiet farms in the lush Cambodian countryside, it is hard to imagine that only a few decades ago, thousands of people were killed there. Walking into the fields, the first, and most prominent, object is a large Buddhist stupa filled with 5,000 skulls exhumed from the surrounding mass graves. In the darkening light of the early evening, it was a thoroughly macabre sight that was followed by an equally macabre walk amongst the mass graves. While they now only appear as rather large holes filled with grass, they once held hundreds of bodies each. Our guide explained to me how most were killed. They were forced to kneel beside the grave and were then beaten, in the head, with, most frequently, an axe. The Khmer Rouge did not believe that prisoners were worth wasting bullets on. My guide’s brother, by the way, was a victim of the genocide. And while the graves have been exhumed, the dead still litter Choeung Ek. As it is the rainy season, bones rise above the mud, reminding the visitor of the ubiquitous nature of the brutality. Perhaps most disturbing, though, was the tree that was used to throw babies against. Khmer Rouge soldiers would hold babies by their feet and fling their heads into the tree before discarding them in a nearby mass grave. The black stain of dried blood is still on the tree.
These, though, are all graphic details that we have encountered before in books on any number of genocides. They are not the most important things when we consider places like Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields.
What is more important, rather, is looking ahead and realizing that in the tragedy of the past lies a call to action in the present. It is easy, in our movement, to forget what we are working for. In the midst of policy briefs, metrics, frustrating emails and long hours that can seem unappreciated, places like Tuol Sleng all too often escape our consideration. Their chilling nature, though, is necessary to, on occasion, return to, for it reminds us of why our work is important, and why it is worth losing sleep over.
At the bottom of a stairwell at Tuol Sleng, people from around the world have written messages in languages from Japanese to Khmer to English. Two messages, written next to each other, stood out to me. The first read, "Don’t let shit like this ever happen again. Please!" It is easy to forget that we are at the forefront of fulfilling this request. As I said earlier, the day-to-day business of STAND, more often than not, does not allow us time to think about the historic nature of our work. As I walked through Tuol Sleng, though, my understanding of STAND went beyond "creating a permanent anti-genocide constituency" to a more simplistic, but perhaps more effective idea: making sure that shit like this doesn’t ever happen again.
As I’ve alluded to, though, our work often goes unappreciated. We struggle to get people to meetings. Convincing people to lobby is impossible. Ensuring that a chapter stays active is a superhuman task. And amidst all this, we don’t have much more than our small group of activists for support. Even our parents tire of hearing about the DRC and South Kordofan. Our small victories, like getting a chapter started, don’t make headlines and convincing our friends of the importance of our work is, at the least, difficult. But at Tuol Sleng someone wrote on a wall beneath a stairwell, "For those who take the stand for freedom and honor." That one sentence is all the support I will ever need. Perhaps an email fails to communicate the significance I felt from these few words, but all I can say is that at that moment, in an uncharacteristic surge of optimism, I truly believed King’s statement that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."