Trauma and the War Museum

The war museum in Siem Reap is often forgotten, either overshadowed by Angkor Wat or the big museums of Phnom Penh. For me, it made a deep impact and was something I highly recommend visiting. The museum is an mine field covered in war machinery with information huts along the sides. The guide is free, and is the gem of the museum. He told us about his life in the war, from when his family were killed at the age of nine, to his many injuries as a soldier, and his life in Cambodia now. Want to know more about our guide The Cat? Click here. Want to read my ramble about trauma? Read on.

The museum has lots of information, but it was the guide who brought it to life, making real the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. The tanks are actually graves, with bones and clothes still in them. The weapons were the tools of child soldiers. The mines mutilated children. imageTalking to our guide was more real than any of the things around us, the notice boards or objects. There he stood right in front of me, his hand on my shoulder, the real life trauma. He was not a fact book or a website, he was a person. His life doesn’t just go away when you get home. I could see in his eyes and it hurt. Silly that I was the one hurting when this man had had so much pain. It hurt to know that this is what could happen to people, and even more that this is what still happens. Walking round, it’s hard to not get emotional, but after I’d gathered my thoughts I reflected on my reaction and the display of trauma.

I was experiencing a secondary trauma; an event that I had not experienced myself but was hearing the testimony of. It was a different person and a different time, but to me, I felt deep sorrow, the story of the trauma creating its own trauma for me. Does it transgress from person to person, or is it his and his only. Is my experience of him a separate entity or is it a connection, like a drop of water that splashes onto me from the river of his life. As humans, do we share in this, do I take a cup and taste what he tastes? Maybe all trauma is shared; his experiences are shared with those who fought in the war, but are also entirely his own. What he felt and saw were his eyes and his brain. Even the same events can be seen by people (who were there) in different ways. Memory is also fluid, and all those in that same memory will have retained different parts of the event. Multiply this slight variation by the many events he has seen, and his lifetime is a complex combination of infinite memories, events, thoughts and traumas. How could I share in his trauma, so complex and unique. And yet he stood in front of me and somehow I did.

Sometimes, I see the news and say ‘oh how terrible’ then go back to eating my cereal. We are shocked but the true impact of the news never hits us. With all the atrocities across the world, it’s easy to tune out, to be distant. Recently, a van drive through a crowd in Nice, France. Despite the many attacks on France, I had never been so upset by it as with the van attack. I sat crying in the kitchen for hours, the stories playing on my mind for days. Why is it that some stories hit home more than others? Why do I cry for some people and not others? Here, in the war museum, it really hit me.

Maybe the traumatic event effects us less if it’s far away. It’s harder to imagine things going on on the other side of the world. The war in Cambodia and the dictatorship at its heart is removed from my life in England. It’s a different country, a different time.

img_9747But I’m wrong, it’s not a different time, it is now. Last week, the boy of fifteen stood on a mine, not far from the museum. There are currently 2 million mines still in Cambodia. Victims past and present have no support from the government and are even charged for their hospital fees. They can’t work or support their families, and you see lots of disabled people begging in the streets. This isn’t a historical event, it’s an ongoing problem. Once a trauma or event is reported, or ends people forget. But tsunamis leave ruins, war leaves injured, trauma leaves a mark. The memories don’t go away. The aftermath is never addressed, never talked about. What is a little donation from me? Nothing. What does my crying do? Nothing.
Some people give their lives to one cause, to fighting for justice and humanity. They give all their money and dedicate themselves to something the believe in. I would like to dedicate part of my life, do what I want to do but also help others, in some small way at least.

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