Monday, January 6, 2014

Letter to a Girl at Tuol Sleng


Dear Girl,

I wish I could begin this letter by addressing you with your name. I also wish I truly knew who you were and where you came from. I don't know who your father and mother were. I don't know if you had brothers sisters that you knew and played with. 

I hope you excuse my lack of knowledge. I know words are weak. Yet I pray somehow, someway my words convey my heart's meaning. 


You were one hundreds of faces I saw in the solemn halls of Tuol Sleng Prison. You were one out of thousands who passed through that dreadful place on your terrifying journey to Choeung Ek. You were one of three million who never returned from the killing fields. 


Yours is a single death. A drop in a vast bitter ocean that has drained over the years into history books and documentaries. 


All too often, you and the people who shared your fate remain only figures and statistics. I only knew you as such before I followed in your footsteps in 2013. I saw the same buildings in downtown Pnom Penh you saw. My soles touched the same floors yours did. I saw some of the same trees you saw at Choeung Ek before you disappeared beneath the ground I walked. 


Books and educational TV specials, hardly prepared me for finding you. In the quiet of Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek my mind was overpowered. Silence is often a fertile grown for the imagination. In soil so dark and bloodstained it grows rancid, pungent visions. 


I know I could never understand what you went through. My mind can't capture the last thoughts that went through your head, the sounds that filled your ears, the smells that clogged your nose. Those final moments before you died are yours and yours alone.


Still, the horror and sorrow of your face and your story, the story of millions, moves me to write you and apologize. 


I am truly, deeply sorry. I never raised the fist that extinguished you. I never held your spent body in my arms and tossed it callously into a pit like rubbish. I never issued the orders to arrest you or your family. I never labeled you 'enemy of the people' 'traitor' or 'spy'.


Even so, I must apologize. As a human being, I must lament and come pleading before you. 


I am sorry. 


I'm sorry you died. 


I'm sorry you suffered. I'm sorry that men who should have laughed with you, sheltered you, and comforted you slit your throat instead.


I'm sorry their humanity couldn't prevail.


I'm sorry the rest of the world looked on, with arms at their side, tongues locked away behind their lips. It wasn't the first time. I doubt it will be the last. We looked away from 10 million in Europe, 2 million in Armenia, 1 million in Rwanda. We look away from the pain and degradation we see everyday in our cities and hometowns. We know we shouldn't, we know we should be stronger. When Cambodia sealed its borders and the Khmer Rouge reveled in their insanity, we should have faced the horror. When they came for you we should have said 'No, not her! Not today! Not ever!' But we were silent. We chose the easy path. We chose blindness, deafness, dumbness. We could not acknowledge the carnage. We did not have the courage to lift ourselves up, out of our routines and petty concerns. We did not have the will to reach out thousands of miles across the world and lend a helping hand when it was needed most.


The truth is, too much of the time, we humans are a sad and weak lot. We love to praise high ideals yet seldom have the stomach to stand up for them. We are more interested in our clothes, dead end jobs, petty work-place troubles, and favorite TV shows. We spend so much of our time making unimportant things vital to our existence. 


It's so much easier to worry about our laundry and diet than confronting the devil inside us, the demon passed from every man and woman to the next generation.


I'm sorry this is the case and that more people don't ponder this bile inside us. 


I'm sorry more don't look back at your tragedy and ask 'How can we make sure that little girls, like you, don't have their heads bashed in by the hundreds?' 



Most of all though, I think I'm sorry that you only knew so little of this world and this life. 


I'm sorry you'll never grow tall and lovely. That you'll never have the chance to drive a motorcycle or car. That you'll never know the thrill of falling love or the wisdom that comes from a broken heart. I'm sorry you'll never have the chance to go to school, work a job, have little girls and boys of your own. 


You were cheated of the chance to know all this and for me, this is perhaps the saddest thing of all. 


If I could, I would see you standing, running walking, breathing smiling laughing. I cannot make this so. 


All I have are these words to offer you. All I have is apologies and one thing more. 


I have my sight. And you should know, I see you little girl. I will not turn away. And now, thanks to this post a few others will see you as well. Perhaps, one day when we see your face in another suffering man, woman or child we shall finally have the courage to say n-o. The chance to at long last earn and acknowledge our humanity. 


May you rest quietly, little girl. Rest and dream of better times than the ones you knew in our sad, angry world.


You have my best wishes.

See you,


 When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget. 

-Christina Rossetti-


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