World War I, Cambodia and beheadings

Front page of Sunday Telegraph

Front of today’s Sunday Telegraph

I am posting my blog a little late today because, this morning and lunchtime, I went to the Imperial War Museum in London where, amongst other marketing matters, they were discussing reaction to the design of their new First World War exhibition area.

Yesterday, the self-styled Islamic State beheaded British aid worker David Haines.

When they beheaded the second American journalist, Steven Sotloff, a couple of weeks ago, my eternally-un-named friend and I discussed whether or not, if you were the family of the victim, you would want to – almost feel compelled to – watch the video of the beheading. I think we both came to the conclusion that we probably would.

I have no urge of any kind to see the beheading of any of these (so far three) victims.

But, for some reason, if I were a brother or father or son, I think I would want to see.

It makes no logical sense. It would have no good, positive effect. It would merely traumatise you with those images for the rest of your life. But there is, I suspect, some inexplicable human urge to experience the last seconds of your brother or husband or father or son.

The Imperial War Museum this morning

London’s Imperial War Museum this morning

The new Imperial War Museum exhibition on the First World War manages an excellent balance between facts and people. It is a big exhibition. I had 50 minutes to skim through it. But, to see it  properly might take three or four hours.

Strangely, the two things I will remember most are a film where not much happened – it was just German prisoners and British soldiers filing past a camera – but you could see all the faces and eyes of those now long-dead people…

And the other thing I will remember is a statistic right at the start of the exhibition which stated that, in the period 1900-1914, average life expectancy in the best parts of the West End of London was 55 (actually 55 for women; 50 for men) and life expectancy in the poorer East End of London was 30.

Nothing to do with the War, but it put it into context. It made that world come alive to me.

Killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Kampuchea/Cambodia

The killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1989

I went to the killing fields of Phnom Penh and to Tuol Sleng in 1989. Tuol Sleng was the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre to which prisoners were taken before they were driven in trucks to the killing fields.

At the killing fields in 1989, you could see the outlines of the mass grave pits of 10 or 15 years before and, here and there, little shreds of shirts and slivers of human bones which had splintered off when skulls and hands and bodies had been smashed.

There were glass pagodas of skulls. But the slivers of bone and the glass pagodas were less horrifying than the small entrance hall to Tuol Sleng where the walls were covered with faces.

Photos at the S-21 interrogation centre in Phnom Penh

These people were at Tuol Sleng long ago

With Germanic efficiency, the Khmer Rouge had photographed their victims before they were taken to the killing fields. Photographs of their faces, as if they were passport photos for death.

All the men and women photographed knew they were going to die.

They did not think they might die.

They knew they were going to die and soon.

They all had that same look in their eyes: a distant, empty stare without hope.

So it goes.

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Filed under Museum, Terrorism, war

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