I wonder what he was feeling, the boy staring at me from the black and white photograph. He must be about twelve years old. The number ‘1’ is pinned to his shirt, signalling he was the first to be processed on the day he was brought to the prison.
Did he have any inkling about what lay ahead?
It was the late 1970’s and the boy in the photograph had been swept up in the brutal madness that was Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. He was here because of his father. Arrested by the Khmer Rouge as a traitor, his father was pressed for a “confession”. Did he know that once he confessed his boy would be brought here too? Did he resist as his fingernails were torn out, as he was beaten, as he was waterboarded? How long was it before he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit?
And now his son, the boy in the photograph, is here.
The boy is alive, but his eyes are dead. His face betrays no emotion. Was he afraid?
He would soon find himself shackled by the feet in a room filled with prisoners. Or was he placed in one of the tiny cells, two paces long and one pace wide? How did he cope when he was forbidden to talk to the people next to him? As he lay awake in the stillness of the night he must have heard their breathing. Was that a comfort or did the absence of anyone familiar accentuate his aloneness?
Eventually they came for him, the child soldiers who tortured the boy’s parents to avoid the same fate befalling theirs. They unshackled his feet. They stood the boy up. They tied a blindfold to his face. They bound his hands behind his back. They led him out of the prison. They placed him in a truck. He must have been terrified. But was his terror stained with hope, hope that perhaps he was being released, that the unfathomable madness was coming to an end?
In a way it was. He was transported the fifteen kilometres or so to a grassy field. And he was slaughtered. He was buried in a mass grave.
I sit here at the place he was murdered. Today it seems so peaceful. Fields of green. Birds singing in the trees. But back then it was a place of terror, the site at which human wickedness reached its denouement. Could he smell it, this wickedness? Did he know that countless others had met their end here? That murdered bodies would soon be pressing in upon his lifeless, murdered body?
A macabre thought. Where was the boy buried? Where did they force him to his knees, smash his skull and slit his throat?
I wonder what his name was. I don’t want to remember him as number 1. I don’t want to remember him as ‘the boy in the photograph’. I want to remember him as Sokhen or Sareth or Tida. This is not a luxury I am afforded.
I don’t understand what happened in Cambodia from 1975-1979. I’d like to think it was an aberration. That it will never happen again. But I know it will. Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, post-colonial Rwanda, divided Yugoslavia, all suggest so.
And so I will remember the boy in the photograph, prisoner number 1. Because if I remember, if we all remember, maybe there’s a chance we can prevent this happening again.