A sobering blog about awful exhibits: The S-21 Prison, The Killing Fields, and the War Remnants Museum.

I don’t know how to start this blog.

The photograph shows the last moments of these children's lives.

I know that war is complex, and I do not wish to offend anyone who has genuinely and selflessly offered their life for a cause in war.  I mean only to share what weighs heavy on me concerning the exhibits of conflict I witnessed in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Yesterday Drew and I visited the “War Remnants Museum” here in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam.  The images inside that museum are so horrendous that my only distraction from the constant realization of the hellishness of war, was a struggle to keep from breaking down into tears.

Pictures. Statistics. Quotes. Sobering pieces that I know fall far short of the whole picture of war, but sufficiently horrify.

Less than a week ago Drew and I visited the exhibit inside the S-21 prison in Cambodia, a prison where the Communist “Khmer Rouge” tortured and imprisoned thousands of Cambodian people, many of whom were just little boys and girls.  The exhibit was full of the archival photos that the K.R. took of its prisoners.  Their somber faces stared out at us, and knowing that only 179 S-21 prisoners have survived, it felt like an audience of ghosts, still trapped inside the now crumbling prison walls.  Some looked afraid.  Some looked lost, and others stared blankly towards the camera.  The actions of the Khmer Rouge were truly awful.  They cast the Cambodian people out of their cities and abolished schools, saying that education was not the way to power, but rather hard work.  They turned ordinary people into slaves and even abolished a monetary system.  The Cambodian people did nothing but work in the farmlands on the countryside.  And those that slipped up in even the slightest way were sent to prison where they had to confess, or were tortured to reveal information, or even killed at the mass graves at the killing fields a few miles away.  Even children were punished in this way for crimes as simple as talking back or “being lazy”.  What child has not talked back in their lifetime or taken time to play?
The communist Khmer Rouge didn’t want citizens.  They wanted well-trained and obedient slaves.

The S-21 prison as well as the killing fields left me in shock as to how a person could stray so far from humanity.  How could a group of people be so inhumane?  It made me shudder at the thought of communism and I thought to myself that communism is a terrible idea fueled only by power.

But the War Remnants museum was like whip-lash, thrashing me around from conclusion to conclusion until I could do nothing but cry inside at the awfulness of hate and the awfulness of killing in any form.  With a feeling of scorn towards communism still freshly in my head from the S-21 exhibit, I saw a display of aggression towards communism in Vietnam that filled me with grief.  The tactics we used in the name of “fighting communism” punished generations that were not even alive to be accused of this so called evil.  The chemical effects of the dioxin we used have resulted in birth-defects and deformities that leave people not only bed-ridden for their entire fragile lives, but in a war-torn and poor place where “bed-ridden” does not mean a life spent on clean linens, but instead a life spent or the wooden boards of a slat-board bed.  Many of these victims are not much older than I, born years after the Vietnam war.

It was as if these exhibits combined to teach me a harsh and graphic lesson against hate of any kind, as well as about how vulnerable to hate we all are.

None of us are above the actions of which we accuse others.

On one hand, awful crimes against humanity were committed in the name of a communist agenda.  On the other hand, awful crimes of aggression were committed in the name of freedom from communism.

I’m not sure I can say much more than this, because there are no conclusion surfacing above the heavy weight of sadness.  There is only the sober realization that we are all capable of awfulness.  We each have such a terrifying ability to hate and kill and dehumanize.

Our anger, hatred, or conviction deserves the most careful attention, lest we forget the humanness of our enemies.  It is true on the small scale as well as the large scale.

“Look at the awful things this other person has done,” can only be coupled with that terrible thought “and I am not above this hate.”

We have to protect ourselves from hatred, and I don’t been against the hatred of others.  I mean against our own hatred.



2 thoughts on “A sobering blog about awful exhibits: The S-21 Prison, The Killing Fields, and the War Remnants Museum.

  1. Mom says:

    And perhaps herein lies the meaning of “salvation”. Not so much being saved from a future punishment in a hell-place but being saved from that whithin us that creates hell on earth.

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