Friday, April 26, 2013

Rihla (Journey 36): Phnom Penh, Cambodia: GENOCIDE AND MEMORY LOSS

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years. 

This rihla is about Phnom Penh, Cambodia

As a visitor you walk down the streets of Istanbul, Berlin, Phnom Penh, Kigali, or Sarajevo, and you admire in the young the bustle of activity, the laughter, the lightness of being as they go about their daily lives …. and you wonder. 

In your mind you start age profiling and ask the question? Do you remember? Do you have a personal or familial stream of consciousness that does not let you forget? Dares not let you forget! 

Are you a victim or a perpetrator? 

At societal level there is generally an orchestrated reconciliation of that memory, often assigned permanence in stone and legal statute, but equally often hijacked in pursuit of national or international political aims with an emotive blackmailing of commemoration. 

But what of the individual? Who owns the memory? Do individuals want to forget? Do they want to bury past memories because either the pain is too great or they do not feel it at all! People who have escaped wholesale slaughter of their kin intact often carry a ‘survivors guilt’ that prevents full participation in the reconciliation. 

One million Armenians of 100 years ago, six million Jews of 70 years ago, two million Cambodians of 40 years ago, 750,000 Tutsis and 25,000 Bosnian Muslims of 20 years ago… a repeating faultline in human behaviour and we have not learned how to prevent it. 

There is imminent danger of an imploding Syrian regime lashing out with chemical weapons perpetrating yet another genocide. There is an opportunity for the international community to help prevent it, and not ignore as they did the cry of the Armenians, the Jews, the Cambodians and Bosniaks. 

There follows a series of pictures taken recently on a trip to see Choeung Ek, one of the notorious killing fields outside Phnom Penh and Tuol Sleng Museum the city centre S-21 detention centre in the former Tuol Svay Prey Highschool that functioned as a clearing slaughterhouse. 

Once of the most poignant of the images is that of a school 'blackboard' on the second floor of Block C in  telling the prisoners to be quiet at all times, written in French, the language of the 'dangerous' educated in Cambodia:

Il est absolument interdit de faire du bruit 

Genocide is a crime of quietness. We must all make as much noise as possible! Cry out to prevent it happening in Syria, if you can.

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