A society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history

Already for half an hour I have been staring at the empty screen in my hotel room, because I know that the thoughts shouting in my head must be somehow verbalised.

Over the last week, I have found myself in a completely different reality. I am surrounded by colours in different shades, sounds of different intensity, tastes I had never tried, gestures completely unfamiliar to me, smiling faces (often with sad eyes) of people I cannot talk to. I am absorbed by this world. I am collecting private pictures and thoughts.

I am used to looking at the world around with the eyes of photography, and in this way I describe it to others. There is some magic in freezing the moment. I often look at the surroundings through camera lenses, waiting for a fraction of one second, just with this particular expression that must be kept forever. The gaze going to my direction reaches everyone who will stop their constant everyday run in order to see my photo.

Khmer lady in Phnom Penh - by Tomasz Biernacki
Khmer lady in Phnom Penh – by Tomasz Biernacki

For the last few days, I have been carrying with me several kilos of cameras and other photography equipment to be able to share with others even a small portion of what I am experiencing here. Actually, I haven’t slept much during the last five days. When the buzz of Cambodia is slowly getting quiet, I look through hundreds of photos from the day, one by one. I am experiencing an emotional rollercoster of this day once again, from the beginning, shot by shot, at a slower pace. I am staring at the details that have not drawn my attention before. I smile, meditate, walk in my hotel room and sometimes I simply cry. This is my time. I know that Cambodia is changing me.

However, there are things that cannot be described by photos. To such things we should dedicate a story…

Over the last few days, I have visited many schools together with Save the Children. At the moment I am already in the capital city preparing for my journey back to Poland. The tasks for our team have almost finished; however, today we also visited one more school, a completely different one: Tould Sleng. It is the former high school that, under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), was changed into a prison and a place of torture.

Memorial plaque in Tould Sleng - by Tomasz Biernacki
Memorial plaque in Tould Sleng – by Tomasz Biernacki

Classrooms from this period have remained untouched, and they are currently the museum of genocide. Over those four dramatic years, at least 1.7 million people (20-25% of the total country population) were killed in Cambodia. In the classrooms where there are still blood marks, there are also tools for torturing and hundreds of photos of the victims. Faces of people who were suffering, knowing they would die. The photos were taken and catalogued by executioners from the same nation; although many of these photos were taken very well, they are horrible.

Latest pictures of the Khmer Rouge’s victims - by Tomasz Biernacki
Pictures of the Khmer Rouge’s victims – by Tomasz Biernacki

Visiting this school with a guide who was personally affected by those terrifying times has been a difficult journey. There were the moments when I had to leave the building for a second as I was not able to listen. To listen to the stories about sophisticated methods of tortures, children forced to work for 15 hours a day, fed only a spoon of rice, dying of starvation or killed when someone caught them eating anything they had found, hearing about the genocide of the whole Cambodian intelligentsia…

Dark cell - by Tomasz Biernacki
Dark cell – by Tomasz Biernacki

It cannot be understood. The encounter with such reality brings only sadness and shame for what a human being can do to another human being. This must be treated as a lesson. It gives me a better understanding of Cambodia, sad looks, current problems and poverty. Let those photos I took in the torture chambers be a bucket of cold water spilled on my head if I ever complain about my current life.

Only seven prisoners of Tould Sleng survived. Two men are still living, and I have an opportunity to meet them. I know that I must learn about their lives to be taught an even more valuable lesson. Young Chhang, Director of the Documentation Centre in Cambodia, said: “A society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history.“

 

Chum Mey (one of the survivors) and me – by Grzegorz Bochenek
Chum Mey (one of the survivors) and me – by Grzegorz Bochenek

 

When we left that school, it was difficult for all of us to say even one word. We were going back to the hotel in silence. I am staring at this noisy city, and it is hard for me to believe that not so long ago it was full of the blood of thousands of innocent people. How big is the power of this nation where people are so kind and smiling to one another!

Overwhelmed by what I have seen today, I am looking through some photos of children, taken during the last week.

Happy children sing a song about the importance of hygiene - by Tomasz Biernacki
Happy children sing a song about the importance of hygiene – by Tomasz Biernacki

Their eyes are shining full of hope, even though many of them live in very poor conditions. But they are disciplined and happy that they can learn. Many teachers met on our way work with passion because they believe in what they do. When we asked children about their dreams, a majority respond that they want to become teachers. You can easily see there is a true community here, and it is very moving to watch how older children help younger ones, teaching them how to read. It brings hope that Cambodia is facing better and better days to come. After all, it would be difficult to believe that this nation could experience even worse things than the ones still remembered.

Children help each other in learning club - by Tomasz Biernacki
Children help each other in learning club – by Tomasz Biernacki

All this experience, emotions, pictures still living in my mind let me say only one thing: thank you!

I thank all who dedicate their lives to help children in Cambodia. I thank Save the Children. I thank every teacher, parent and child involved in bringing help.

We can never forget what this nation has gone through.

Last „selfie“ in Cambodia - by Tomasz Biernacki
Last selfie in Cambodia – by Tomasz Biernacki