I don’t want to hear the world right now.
But I’m not quite ready for silence either.
I play Ludovico Einaudi’s ‘nuvole bianche’ on repeat - sounds I regularly return to when in need of feeling something that cannot be spoken.
Amazingly, Norng and his brother survived S-21. But not without great loss. The boys witnessed the death of both their mother and father within the walls of Tuol Sleng. And without other surviving members of the family, they spent the next fourteen years in an orphanage with more than 500 others whose families had been absorbed by the regime.
I can't even begin to make sense of what this 9-year-old boy must have gone through.
And here we are, 36 years later, waiting to have coffee with him.
Norng enters the café holding three pictures, all taken on the day of liberation in 1979. There are five children in the photographs. He identifies each one of them, pointing out himself, his brother, the others. He tells us the baby had not yet been named and sadly, had died shortly afterwards due to illness. I look at the hands holding the pictures and try to understand that the 45-year-old man before us is the same 9-year-old boy before us.
I’m not sure there are many acts that require greater vulnerability than allowing others to see our pain. It’s an undressing of sorts - a most precious offering - an act that says, this is my story and I will share it with you. Again and again we are so honoured to listen. So privileged. So humbled. I can’t say thank you enough, Norng, for sharing your story, for allowing us to see your pain and your resilience.
How important is it to remember our suffering? To commemorate loss? What impact do memorial sites and acts of memorialisation have on individual and community healing? Do people need physical places to remember, to grieve, to honour those who have been lost? How do these acts and sites contribute to – or impede – healing?
This is research space, yes.
But this is also sacred space.
In being here, I realize I’m not just a student asking questions of social science. I am a student asking questions about the science of what it means to be human. What it means to know loss. To grieve. To seek healing. To forgive. To live well amid so much suffering. And in this regards, my findings are leaving me again and again, undone.
Norng returns to Tuol Sleng each day as a caretaker. He tells us that he tends to the grass, keeps trees well pruned, and cares for the grounds by keeping things tidy.
I can hardly make sense of what he is telling me. I ask him what it’s like to return daily to a place that has caused him such grief. It was hard at first, he tells us. For the first five months or so he was reminded daily of the horrors witnessed here and he would relive the trauma. But eventually, he says, “I began to feel close to my mother when I was here. Now, I can connect with her and that brings relief”.
I ask him if he thinks it’s important to remember what happened under the Khmer Rouge and if remembering helps to heal. His response is an unabated yes. We absolutely cannot forget, he says. It's the last thing we can do for the victims. When I ask why it’s so important I receive an answer I’ve heard many times over many days of interviewing: for the next generation. They must know. They must remember.
But for Norng, his being at Tuol Sleng each day is more than just showing up. He talks of the importance of redesigning and repurposing the space. He talks of S-21 as a 'shocking place', but one he wants to see transformed into a space where people can come to learn, where they can sit under the shade of the trees, where they can relax and feel peace.
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, writes powerfully about the ability some individuals possess to find redemptive perspectives on their suffering. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes,
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.
Ludovico Einaudi’s ‘nuvole bianche’ continues to play on repeat as I finish writing this entry.
‘nuvole bianche’ - white clouds
A fitting song to listen to, I think. White clouds are said, in some spiritual traditions, to symbolize peace after times of trouble.
I think of Norng and the way he’s sought to paint white into the world after having lived under such dark skies.
I am humbled by what I have yet to learn in this life.