Torture Tourism: Welcome to Cambodia

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In the darkness of our Bangkok hotel lobby at 4 a.m., as our taxi driver takes away our bags, I spy a tattered copy of Harper’s magazine (November, 2005), which I snatch with delight (a seemingly random event, since the only American magazines I’ve seen in six months were sent in a care package back in August). On the plane to Phnom Penh, I read an essay by William Pfaff, entitled “What We’ve Lost: George W. Bush and the price of torture.”

The article criticizes the Bush Administration’s “installation of torture as integral to American military and clandestine operations, a part of the administration’s repudiation of those portions of international law and American treaty obligations that it considers irreconcilable with absolute U.S. national sovereignty, or as obstacles to national policy.” Pfaff goes on to detail and prove this “installation of torture,” saying only the CIA recognized that “the new White House policy authorized American officers to commit acts for which the Second World War Allies had hanged Gestapo and SS officers and Japanese prison-camp commanders.”

The article is depressing; it is an example of how America, not the world, has changed since September 11, 2001, and it is one of the reasons my wife and I were only too happy to flee American soil/politics/culture for a year, not in rejection of these things, but to get a fresh perspective on it all.

We land in Phnom Penh, line up for our tourist visas, then, as we are waiting for our single backpack at the carousel, I ask my fellow travel writer, Stuart McDonald (whom I’d met for beers in Bangkok), how to get to the Boddhi Tree Guesthouse that is so highly recommended on his acclaimed Southeast Asian travel site, travelfish.org.

“Just tell the driver to take you to Tuol Sleng,” he says, “it’s right across the street.”

“What’s Tuol Sleng?” I ask.

“The torture museum.”

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And so it is that I come to be walking through the cramped cells of “S-21,” Pol Pot’s most infamous holding facility, which, between the years of 1975 and 1979, processed and interrogated some 17,000 political prisoners before shipping them 15 kilometers south, to be bludgeoned to death and buried in the “Killing Fields,” the mass grave that is the most famous legacy of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime.

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That my wife and I have no guidebook for Cambodia, are entirely ignorant of its history, and that we have allowed the Universe to guide us to this place, makes it that much more shocking of an experience. S-21 was a secondary school before its classrooms were converted to prison cells, surrounding a pleasant, palm-studded courtyard.

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In the rooms, there are the iron bars to which the prisoners’ ankles were chained (smaller rusted loops for the children); there are the beds on which the bodies were found by the liberating Vietnamese soldiers, bodies which are buried now in white-washed tombs; there are mug shots of the detainees, black and white portraits, some of the eyes defiant, others resigned; there is a glass case filled with instruments of torture, and there are paintings of torture scenes, at which I cannot look without thinking of my fellow Americans at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

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And there are human skulls, with single bullet holes and blunt-trauma injuries. The skulls were excavated from a quickly improvised gravesite in the surrounding neighborhood but they are only a small preamble to what we will find when we retrace the prisoners’ last journey to the Killing Fields.

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