Meeting the Man Without A Face at Tuol Sleng, Cambodia

I really wanted to give him money. His was probably a victim of an acid attack, burn accident, or something worse. This older Cambodian gentleman’s gnarled up face could rival Two Face from the Batman comics. I struggle with wanting to help and also not wanting to get scammed. What’s a dollar or two to me in the long scheme of things in a country where the per capita monthly income around $70 a month, right? After a few minutes of mental debate, I end up trying not to make eye contact and walk the other direction, feeling conflicted.

As we hopped on a Cambodian style tuk tuk—a modified motorbike with seating for four –I feel the warm breeze wrap around my skin like an old worn-in sweatshirt. I was back in south East Asia! But this time it was different. I have never been to Cambodia, but I expected the same same, but different. I remember the distinct smell of trash in Asia, as it wafts by. The sound of motorbikes dominate the roads, and the fruit stand vendors hawk the freshest of exotic fruits. Bright pink dragon fruit and Aubergine colored mangosteens, and a wide variety of bananas, pineapple and mangoes colored the side of the streets as we whizzed by.

passing by the marketplace

I tried hard not to think about him, but I couldn’t get the image out of my head. A deep hole sat where his right eye would have been, covered by a thin layer of white scar tissue. Half of his face looked as though it had been melted away like old candle wax. Think happy thoughts, I said to myself…but I couldn’t.

We had just spent the afternoon spent at Tuol Sleng, a school turned prison turned genocide museum in the middle of Phnom Penh. I couldn’t help but feel saddened and depressed. It was ironic. A place that used to promote higher education had become a place were educated thinkers were tortured and killed, promoting Pol Pot’s return to a simple agrarian society of peasants and workers. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were neatly and precisely displayed at S.21 prison. The grounds were eerily calm as we perused the cells where prisoners were tortured and held. I couldn’t help but wonder why humanity would do this to each other, and why we allowed it to still happen in places like Sudan and Uganda. If only those walls could speak, I wonder how loud the screams would be. I never made it out to see the Killing Fields, where over 20,000 people were executed and thrown in mass graves, but Tuol Sleng and the remnants of the horrible regime that killed an est. total of 2 million of their own people were enough to leave a lasting impression.

the interrogation cells where victims were routinely tortured into confession