Thursday, November 17, 2011

Monuments to Man's Cruelty

     Along the travel path, especially in the Third World, there are a few stops that are unnerving but necessary and instructive for anyone who wishes to understand the full range of man's behavior toward his fellow man. These are evident but not customarily on the tourist itinerary, especially if that route is developed by an agent wishing to put the best face on his country and make his client's journey as pleasurable as possible. I won't try to list all of these sites here but I will mention a few that were extremely poignant for me.

     We can begin with sites of arguably the most horrendous event in recent memory by visiting any of the many concentration camps that still dot the countrysides of Germany and Poland and neighboring areas. I was able to visit Dachau during a stay in Germany and, a bit later on, Teresienstadt in the Czech Republic. Dachau was an extermination camp and provided an eerie reminder of one of the great crimes of history with its bare and depressing barracks and its multitude of ovens to remind one of the ten million or so who perished during the time the Nazis were in power. It is a place of prayer, a place of horror and a stark reminder of what man remains capable of at his very worst. A camp is a must stop for a tour of Central Europe but you will probably have to go a bit out of the usual route and make arrangements yourself for a visit.

      Another place the inquisitive traveler should surely not miss is the Slave Coast in Ghana where the imposing castles still stand that were once the homes of provincial governors who supervised the capture and sale of millions of Africans. In the courtyards of these buildings one can see where the next slave girl was chosen to be paraded, washed and sent up to do the bidding of the governor. One can visit the horrific circumstances where the victims where housed while they awaited transport to the ships that stood offshore prepared to take them to their death on the sea or to a life of captivity and servitude, the paths that these unfortunate people trod to make their way to the rowboats that would take them to the ships in deep water, the places where resistant captives were crowded into a contained, inescapable room and left to die of starvation or disease as a penalty for lack of cooperation. This was truly the place of no return. A trip to West Africa is not complete without a stop at such sober settings in Ghana or their equivalents in Senegal or Benin.

      Another great crime of separation and discrimination- and there are quite a few to choose from- is South Africa's experience with Apartheid. I do not need to describe here the repressive system of laws and abuses which characterized that period in the country but there are several places where one can get insight into what those times were like and how people suffered through them. There are museums in several cities in South Africa which depict the period but the most impressive memorial for me was the prison on Robbins Island off the coast of Capetown where many leaders of the African National Congress were held for countless years. The most famous resident of the prison was Nelson Mandela, the man who walked out of confinement to eventually lead a democratic and substantially forgiving nation. Listening to the descriptions of life there by the guides, former prisoners themselves, and standing at the entrance to the cell where Mandela spent so many years was a moving, incomparable experience.

      And then there is South Asia, most specifically the dramatic and relatively recent horror site called the Killing Fields in Cambodia where so many innocent victims perished under the rule of Pol Pot, the leader of one of the most appalling governments in history. What makes this place so vividly palpable and even overwhelming to the visitor is how naked the paths are where the visitor treads. On the fields themselves where innocent people were slaughtered and left often unburied are mounds of skulls and shards of bones which crunch under your feet. You are truly there. The prisons and the photos of that period are almost too accessible. It is surely another place for contemplating how constantly guarded we must remain to avoid such cruelty in the future.

     Sometimes we need to get well off the beaten track in order to locate the sites where killing and barbarity were the norm. An example of this is what remains of My Lai near the coast of Vietnam. In that place the all too familiar slaughter by American troops of a group of farmers living and working in a rice village took place. The bullet holes in the trees, the underground shelters where the people cringed as grenades were dropped inside, the statues erected to honor the victims, the modest and friendly guides who are descendants of the horror all testify to the events that transpired. This is not at all the only memorial to the warfare that took place in Vietnam but it is especially dramatic for Americans who served in the war and return to the site for deeply personal reasons.

     Should we visit such places as these on our vacations? Only if we want to grow into more sensitive, caring human beings committed to eliminating the possibility of more of the same happening on our watch. And only if we wish to understand the totality of human history including its underside. If we miss these sites, of course, we can always visit Somalia or North Korea or Darfur for first hand experience.

ETA Basque Demonstration, San Sebastian, Spain

1 comment:

Lorraine said...

Your post on man's cruelty, a day before Election Day, is a timely one. I will cast my ballot unafraid - grateful and aware of my privileged life. You do expand your readers' worlds - not always comfortably - but certainly consistently. Keep me in the loop.