It was Christmas day and I choose to recollect myself in order to rediscover my own humanity and in Phnom Penh, I carefully perused my choices to see and visit for the day. Mindful that while the rest of the world are enjoying the best of Christmas, I am mending a bruised ego, failed relationship but a prospective future nonetheless. No auspicious day than this to check out the vestiges of terror, the failure of humanity to protect one-fourth of the population of Cambodia from annihilation and the scars still are visible even until today. The scars I wound up scratching for myself to feel, albeit figuratively.
Tuol Sleng S-21 prison cell is the worse prison ever can be imagined. My Cambodian friend, not wanting to even remember the horrors of the Pol Pot regime decided to drop me off from the gate and I made my way inside the prison with pretty much my own self-absorbed confidence intact. I am honoured to have paid homage to the struggles of Cambodians in their own soil, under their own tyrant and how this experience even have instilled in me the humanity I have lost but regained and rediscovering myself along the way.
Here, on the very walls of the Tuol Sleng S-21 prison cell, the very prison building which bore witness of his incarceration and the eventual death due to torture of his wife, the humble old man, Bou Meng sells nothing but his book. Mr. Bou Meng is a survivor of the Khmer prison known to the world as Tuol Sleng S 21. As I am more attached to books everywhere I go, I easily connected with Mr. Bou Meng, purchased his book ($10), he autographed it, then we took a photo together, I stayed for 30 minutes more, observing him and the tourists who pass us by.
As the longest 30 minutes of my life came to a close, I have wittingly observed that people have the slightest idea what they missed when they only look at the exterior of any destination they so choose to visit, literally or figuratively. When because we are on a hurry, we missed out at life. When because we avoid books, we missed more at sure-fire tips on survival. When we avoid talking to locals, young and old, we missed out so much on humanity, depriving ourselves of the opportunity to immerse and learn, keenly observing, and embracing life.
Bou Meng is an painter who was saved from the gallows of the Killing Fields because of his art. He survived, as he wrote in his book, because he was commissioned to paint portraits of the tyrant Pol Pot. Those which we see on the internet of Pol Pot were his creations, his masterpiece. Awkward as it many appear, we hated gawking at Pol Pot, his evil eyes, his horrendous acts and his foolish thoughts but that very same painting which we see saved the life of Bou Meng.
The stark realities I gained on Christmas day was attributed to the fact that while the world hated Pol Pot in all his barbarism and evil deeds, the world never even look at his portraits but the very portrait we refused to look at, though piercing as it maybe, is also the very medium Bou Meng lent to extend his life but not of his wife. He may not have told me straightforwardly while I stayed at his side for 30 minutes about how he managed to survived after the harrowing years of terror under Pol Pot, I felt he tries to find humanity within the walls of Tuol Sleng S 21. He could have chosen to get out of the very prison building which floods with horror stories and cries of desperation but he choose to stay and survive. He mustered enough courage, even as his years gained for him wisdom to not choose the path of revenge, he wrote his stories to inspire others and I am grateful I am at the right moment where he generously shared his own humanity. Though bruised, in tears and nursing an emotional torment inside the Tuol Sleng S 21, with Bou Meng, I say I have anchored my humanity on the key tips of survival: the evolution of our own roles in the world using the talents and skills we are gifted and acquired. By so doing, we gain life, we reacquire our lost humanity and rediscovery ourselves.