Claire Cunningham asked me to join her in Cambodia for a research trip towards her piece, Pink Mist, about the potential of landmines to create disabilities. We had the most extraordinary time. Aside from Claire’s research we also ran movement sessions in different schools and at amazing arts projects such as Epic Arts. I did a few days teaching at Phare Circus School in Battambang (literally translated means He lost his bat). It was a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. Below is a piece I wrote while I was there.
Visit to The Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh February 2013
I didn’t want to go and I felt slightly angry. Having seen Killing Fields I knew what we would see and the idea of actually stepping foot in the place was making my legs buckle. It felt like the most curious tourist attraction – visit the National Museum, The Pagodas, the Foreign Correspondent’s Bar and then off out of town to The Killing Fields and take time out to walk around The Genocide Museum. Teul Seng – where Khmer Rouge took Cambodians and tortured them. See the real chains, the gallows they were hung from, the photographs of holes in their skulls and peep into the barrels that they had their heads submerged in. Gaze dumbfoundedly at paintings of soldiers bayoneting babies by chucking them up in the air and catching them on the spear. Stand speechless in front of hundreds of faces in black and white photos, those beautiful innocent people – guilty of being educated, religious, medical. Try in some way to fathom what they were feeling and knowing that is what fear looks like and it is strangely dry. No guilt, no fathomable cause, except for the brutal drive towards Year Zero.
Our guide was emphatic and unflinching in his descriptions and attention to detail as he repeated his script to these sad white faces sweating in the searing heat. Here is where the special prisoners were chained to their beds and here is a picture of the dead body found when the prison was liberated. Here are the bloodstains on the floor. This is the bucket, this is the blade. That will be three dollars each, please.
I felt feeble. I didn’t want to be interested. I didn’t want to not be interested, as though in some way I was devaluing the lives of the victims by in any way being unmoved. I wanted to leave and drink something cold, I wanted to leave before I found stillness and calm in hearing about pain.
Once I had gagged at the explanation for the wire fence along the top walk way of the ex-school block, I removed myself to sit and people-watch. How do people behave when hearing about genocide and suffering? They walk slowly, they nod and they grimace. They talk in hushed voices – there are signs up asking people not to laugh – they sit alone and stare into space. They buy souvenirs to assure their continuing connection to being a witness.
At the souvenir store, an elderly man jumped to his feet to shake our hands. Here – we were pointed to a cheaply produced book – is his story, one of two remaining survivors of Tuel Seng. Here he is still, telling his story, having his picture taken with visitors and flogging his book. We saw his actual cell earlier, I realise that this is who had been talked about. I find Khmer names hard to absorb, almost as soon as I have heard them my brain cannot tell me what the syllables were. But here is the old man and here are the pictures of him when the prison was liberated, all skin and bones. What a way to make a living.
And off we then went and had lunch.