As I wandered the grey, damp prison complex,through endless cell after cell, huge blown up pictures hanging everywhere, desperate eyes watching, I began to tap lightly on the inside of my left wrist with my right forefingers.
Victims of unlawful imprisonment, torture, rape and summary executions looked at me and I tapped, tapped, tapped. Some had tears in their eyes, some were smiling as though it might elicit some bit of sympathy from their Khmer Rouge captors.
The sun outside was shining, heat beating down onto this beautiful green city but inside there was a damp chill, a cold that crept up and down my spine. I started to feel the breath catch in my throat and so I tapped and tapped on my wrist and kept walking and didn’t stop looking, at the bloodstains still unwashed from the red brick walls 30 years later, until I felt like I could breathe again.
The tapping is a trick. It doesn’t help of course but when your chest tightens and you feel like you can’t breather, it gives you something to focus on, something to do until your mind can calm itself down again.
People absorb trauma that is not ours. When I worked for NGOs, researching and documenting mass atrocities and genocide, I read so many reports of unspeakable atrocities, rewrote so many of them into the first person that my mind, once asleep, became confused and terrified. Did that happen to me?
Of course not. Once awake, I knew it was not my trauma, that I was just trying to help in any small way possible, those who had actually experience the unspeakable.
But writing and walls hold trauma and it can affect us, our body and minds. Our bodies feel the cold chill of a place where many have died. That’s why we make memorials, in places like Auschwitz, Kigali and Phnom Penh.
Our mind too, absorbs the trauma and in trying to process it when we are asleep, makes it our own. I wrote out torture reports so many times, helping stunned and traumatised girls by filling in their asylum applications for them, because they were too broken to do so. Or I rewrote articles written in a survivors second language, fixing the grammar and tweaking the vocab, to be published on some website where it would be read by a few.
And so I wrote it as if it happened to me, everything in the first person.
From Sudan, I wrote: They took me off the street and brought to me a house somewhere. There was three of them. They beat me and stripped me and took turns raping me. They had a break and did it again. I don’t remember how many times.
From Ethiopia, during the Red Terror: They tied my wrists and ankles to a stick, so I was like a pig on a spit. They whipped my back and poured water into my wounds so it was agony. They brought me to the prison we called Alem Bekagn. It means ‘farewell to the world’ . No one ever left Alem Bekagn.
I never acknowledged that working with victims of trauma was affecting me. Doing so seemed selfish, immature and even attention-seeking. But it did affect me in small ways. Made me nervous, over -cautious in crowds and social situations, prone to panic attacks.
Roxanne Krystelli, researcher and humanitarian practitioner who writes excellently on issues related to conflict and atrocities, says ‘In conflict and development discourse, we often speak of the need to let victims and survivors of violence tell their own story in the ways that feel right to them. While that is indeed an ideal approach, we are so often caught in the murkier lines of vicarious storytelling: we are trusted with the stories of others. We are trusted with their trauma. ‘
What I felt wasn’t real trauma of course. Nothing like that we encounter in Tuol Sleng prison. But these places hold the trauma and fear and a sliver of it seeps into us. You could feel it in the prison complex, see it in the grimaces of other visitors, the shivers, the shrugs people gave each other.
I brought my camera but I didn’t take pictures. In Rwanda, I took photo after photo, gruesome and graphic and posted them all on facebook, wanting everyone to see. Working on it day in, day out, genocide, conflict and violence was all I thought about, talked about.
But now I didn’t want to see it or share it. I left the prison and had lunch.