No one (sane) questions the value of travel. The thrill of foraging for weird finds in bustling local markets, seeing awe-inspiring natural and man-made wonders and discovering that no-stops-pulled $2 cocktail bar goes without saying.
But a little more thought needs to go into why holiday-makers should pay a small fee to have their hard-earned bliss temporarily shattered by a visit to a “death museum”. Scattered throughout the world, these memorials – whether a former torture chamber, a mass grave, a claustrophobic prisoner hideout – have one thing in common: to make you a witness to unspeakable cruelties humans have inflicted on each other in the past.
Despite the intense discomfort you’re guaranteed to experience, there are some extremely good reasons for travelling to remember the dead.
1. To remember that life is short – and could be a lot worse.
Being human, we tend to forget very quickly that tomorrow might never come. A visit to the Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison at Phnom Penh will cure that. Walking through the former high school-turned-torture chamber was like stepping onto the set of a horror film. Except the chills lasted much longer, when it dawned on me that the bloodshed within those walls happened to real people like you and me that were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Used by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 to eliminate political rivals and their families (and bizarrely enough, anyone who wore glasses), Tuol Sleng is preserved almost exactly as it was found. Barbed wire surrounds the compound. Faded blood stains are still visible on the floor.
Apart from some remnant skulls and torture instruments on display, perhaps the most disturbing thing was passing by several display boards where mugshots of hundreds of victims – including young children – stare silently at you, willing you to imagine their senseless suffering.
There’s hardly a Cambodian who is not related to one of the millions who were tortured or starved to death. Retracing the stories of ‘ordinary people’ and touching the cracked brick walls of the very place where their lives came to a violent end renews a deep sense of how fragile life is in a way few other experiences will.
2. To remember that evil only triumphs when the good do nothing.
At the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda, the thing that struck me most about the rape, torture and massacre of anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million people in 1994 (mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus) over a period of 100 days was the fact that it was sanctioned by silence from all levels of society – neighbours, government officials and the international community, who watched the mass killings unfold before their very eyes in the media.
The pockets of bravery that the museum paid tribute to were isolated rays of humanity that shone through the killing frenzy sparked by a contrived ethnic rivalry. I was particularly touched by the story of an old widow who hid several Tutsis in her garden shed, scaring off machete-wielding militia who threatened her at the door by saying she would conjure up evil spirits to go after them.
Similar atrocities continue to occur today. Things that would shock us to our core if they ever happened to our loved ones – being forced into slavery, becoming an unwanted refugee after fleeing a deadly civil war, being violently persecuted by the government – are happening to people all over the world.
A visit to the genocide museum will challenge you to constantly scrutinise whether a false sense of distance from these events is causing the same indifference to human suffering to pervade your own life.
3. To remember that sometimes, you will never truly understand another’s suffering. But in trying, you will be moved to act.
The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam helps you relive the story of Anne, a young Jewish girl who died in the Holocaust. The house is where her family and four others hid from the Nazis in a cramped secret annex for two years, before being betrayed by an anonymous informer and deported to concentration camps.
It’s been several years now since I’ve been there, but I still remember the oppressive heaviness that settled in soon after climbing the steep stairs and seeing the small rooms where eight people were holed up, silently living in fear each day of being discovered. Translated excerpts from the diary Anne wrote during her time there transport you into her shoes:
“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.” (July 15, 1944)
There’s no way an outsider can fully comprehend the magnitude of suffering endured by another in these inhumane situations. But travelling to remember the dead, trying to understand what happened, and why, will hopefully trigger a personal connection which grows into a hunger for positive action that goes beyond just feeling sad over the past.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Kigali, Rwanda; Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
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