The Big Issue : Edition 446
THE BIG ISSUE 22 NOV – 05 DEC 2013 19 TOURISTS LISTEN TO INFORMATION HEADPHONES AT THE CONCENTRATION CAMP OF AUCSHWITZ II-BIRKENAU than a basic education, a pair of spectacles or knowledge of a foreign language – were sent to die of starvation, labouring on communal farms, or despatched in the Killing Field camps. Prior to 1975, Choeung Ek was an orchard and Chinese cemetery. The Khmer Rouge turned it into a killing centre for people who had often been tortured elsewhere and made to sign false confessions. Those places of suffering included Phnom Penh’s notorious S-21 prison, now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Some 17,000 people are believed to have been killed at Choeung Ek, with their bodies disposed of in a series of mass graves at the site. These graves have now largely been excavated; thousands of skeletons and other bones are displayed in a glass-sided memorial stupa, or Buddhist tower, built at the site. I had seen pictures of this before visiting Choeung Ek and wondered how I would respond when confronted with the real thing. But when I stood before the stupa I found myself experiencing feelings of horror and revulsion, yet, at the same time, a deep sense of reverence. This stemmed from the respectful way the bones were displayed. The message here seemed to be: “We respect your suffering and are displaying you as a warning to future generations of what humankind is capable of.” But the reality of Choeung Ek cannot be sanitised in tasteful memorials. Look in the depressions that are the sites of mass graves and you see bones that are given up by the earth every wet season – seemingly to prod the living with ongoing evidence of the dead. Sometimes, remnants of clothing also emerge. THIS WAS NOT my first experience of confronting the legacy of genocide. Twenty years earlier, I had visited the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. Its name is probably the most potent signifier of the Nazi Holocaust in World War II, and I think I will carry with me all my days a stark image of its grey machinery of industrial death. The long, bleak railway platforms, the wooden bunk houses, the stone entrances to gas chambers, the displays of piles of personal effects owned by the victims, and the barbed and electrified fences all speak of desolation and destruction. The two experiences prompted similar responses in me – a sense of horror at what had happened and a deep respect for those who had suffered. I also had to wonder how it was that some sort of normal life continued in the areas surrounding these places while the killing was underway. There were also differences in the two experiences. The Nazi Holocaust was on an industrial scale while the Killing Fields were of a pre-industrial dimension. That, of course, says nothing about the nature of the crimes or the suffering endured. The Jews and Roma of Poland who largely made up Hitler’s victims have passed into history – or exile through emigration – and there seemed to be a massive silence hanging over the Nazi project when I visited Auschwitz. In Cambodia, by contrast, the survivors and witnesses to Pol Pot’s legacy were everywhere and spoke freely. But that willingness to talk cannot bring events closer to those who did not experience them. The nature of the crime cannot be imagined by those fortunate enough not to experience it. At both places I pondered the morality of even visiting such sites and whether I was influenced by some ghoulish curiosity about the nature of such barbarity. I don’t think it is ever possible to be totally at peace visiting such places. I do, however, think they serve an important purpose in keeping the memory of such atrocities alive to help prevent their recurrence in the future. Then again, events in Rwanda, East Timor, the Balkans and elsewhere in recent decades suggest that lessons of the past are not easily learned. » Rod Myer is a Melbourne-based business journalist, author and poet. He wrote Living the Dream, a biography of industrialist Victor Smorgon, and was co-author of One out of the Box, about businessman and philanthropist Richard Pratt.