Some events in history are incomprehensible to me.
That some people survive these events, with dignity and hope, is almost more incomprehensible.
While I was in Phnom Penh last month, as part of a photo-tour/workshop with photographers Karl Grobl, Marco Ryan, Gavin Gough and Matt Brandon, I was privileged to meet and speak with Mr Chum Mey, one of only seven prisoners known to have survived the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21): Tuol Sleng.
He spoke through an interpreter, but it was his voice and gentle brown eyes that held me transfixed as he talked about his experiences at the prison.
Chum Mey was in his forties, with a pregnant wife and three small children when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh. After being part of the exodus out of Phnom Penh, he was sent back to the city to repair the sewing machines used to manufacture the black uniforms favoured by the new regime. On 28 October 1978, they sent him to Tuol Sleng where he survived unspeakable and repeated tortures. His survival, when upwards of 17,000 perished, he believes, was because of his skills as a mechanic.
He talked, in his quiet voice, without rancour as he guided us around what is now a museum to the atrocities committed by those under the direct command of Kang Kech Iev, or “Brother Duch”, the head of the security apparatus. “If the dog bites you, you cannot bite it back”, Chum Mey said to us.
Where his anger did show was, not at Duch, but at the International Court – the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal – which gave Comrade Duch only 35 years for his crimes against humanity.
Join me, with Mr Chum Mey, in a short tour of Cambodia’s living past.
Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
How lucky it is that most of us are never so severely tested.