The Lure of Trauma Tourism

Concentration camps, former war zones and the sites of mass destruction emit an odd magnetism for travellers.

But why do we turn places of pain into places of pilgrimage – do we go to pay our respects to the dead, to learn our history so we can avoid repeating it, or from mere morbid curiosity? Lesley Stones tries some amateur psychoanalysis.

Some old rags are lying in a muddy patch of ground under a tree at Choeung Ek in Cambodia. A pair of trousers and a shirt, perhaps worn by a man whose bones are now on display in the nearby memorial. Fragments of clothes are sometimes unearthed when heavy rain pummels the ground here, because these are the Killing Fields.

Wooden platforms at Choeung Ek let you look down on some of the mass graves that were excavated after the Khmer Rouge slaughtered an estimated 3-million people. I’m old enough to vaguely remember the brutality of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, because they governed from 1975 to 1979, then went underground and continued the terror for several more years.

Clothes found in Killing Fields Trauma Tourism Travel Ideas
Clothes found in Killing Fields

There are many Killing Fields sites, with more than 17,000 people executed at Choeung Ek alone after being tortured in one of 5,000 prisons created by the regime.

I’d already visited S-21 in Phnom Penh, once a school, then a prison, and now a museum that displays photos of countless victims and the gruesome torture techniques used to literally break them.

Then, as I look down on the graves, look up at the memorial housing thousands of skulls, and spot the muddy rags, I wonder why I’m here.

Trauma Tourism is a massive thing, with concentration camps like Auschwitz, the Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam and the 9/11 Memorial in New York attracting millions of visitors.

Perhaps each of us has a different explanation for why we go, so I tried to understand mine. Partly I want to pay my respects to the dead, and say I’m sorry for what they did to you.

Torture beds Trauma Tourism Travel Ideas
Torture beds

I want to learn what happened, and to comprehend how badly humankind can treat its own. I want to know how it began, so I can speak out the next time one race, one religion or one party tries to oppress another.

By visiting these sites, we can hopefully better understand the events that led up to the traumas of the past and be more alert to prevent it from happening again.

Some people go to a particular site because they or their family were personally involved, and visiting the scene can help bring healing and closure. For others, it’s simply voyeurism, ticking a tourism box, or the morbid thrill of experiencing a painful but thankfully transient sorrow. Just another place to Instagram and show how well travelled they are.

But seeing Chinese girls taking smiling selfies as they climbed on railway carriages used to bundle Jewish people to Auschwitz saddened me. These sites demand respect and reflection, not jaunty thumbs-up photos.

Rebuilding society

Turning sites of terror into tourist attractions also has a money-making element that can be used for good, if the profits help rebuild the society affected by the tragedy.

Cambodia S-21 Museum Trauma Tourism Travel Ideas
Cambodia S-21 Museum

Cambodia’s S-21 museum is run by a private company, and while some of the entrance fee goes to the government and the company, some cash goes to charities that fund social enterprises.

Choeung Ek is managed by a Japanese NGO and part of the ticket money supports social enterprise activities. As well as bringing in money to help a damaged country recover, tourism can be a powerful force to drive a change of behaviour by putting it under a global spotlight.

My Cambodian tour guide, Heng Seng Hok, fully supports turning the traumatic past into a highly visible museum. Many former Khmer Rouge members are still in the government, and make frequent calls to ‘leave the past in the past’ so they can escape any retribution for their part in the genocide. Hok is afraid that if the horrors are forgotten, they will soon be repeated.

“Tourists ask why our country is poor and why we have a lot of orphans, street children and beggars, and it’s because of the war. From 1968 to 1998 many millions were executed or died of starvation or sickness because there was no healthcare system.

So the Killing Fields are a real museum, a historical site where people can see the evidence,” he says. “Tourists can help Cambodian people to stop the genocide from happening again, because when they learn the story they won’t support the troops and these crazy leaders won’t be able to re-establish a civil war.”

It’s vital that local people also visit the sites, Hok says, especially the younger generation who don’t know their own history. “When local people see the Killing Fields and the museum it encourages them to protect their country from the communist leaders. The ultra-communist government executed 3-million people, including people who were better educated.

This is the very painful background of Cambodia with times of great suffering.” Hok never gets blasé about these sights. “I went through this war so every time I am here I have a broken heart. The torture scenes merge in front of my eyes, so sometimes when I’m telling the story of the terrors it’s very hard to control my feelings,” he says.

Making money from the Vietnam War

In neighbouring Vietnam the government is pushing to make tourism a major industry, and it’s using its war with America to do so.

Trauma Tourism Travel Ideas

The once-secret Cu Chi Tunnels dug by the Viet Cong to hide themselves and their weapons from American bombers are now a major attraction.

Wriggling through the tunnels that cover 250km is almost fun, but a display of lethal traps devised to wound pursuing Americans quickly wipes the smile off your face.

Worse is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which highlights man’s utter brutality. You can read reports filed by war correspondents and see the final pictures captured by a photojournalist before a bullet killed him.

There are pictures of the deformed victims of Agent Orange, a chemical used to kill the crops and starve the fighters, which left a deadly legacy of birth defects. Cell blocks that housed American prisoners of war show you the horrors inflicted by their captors, too.

Grim sights in Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe is also badly scarred by war, and Nazi concentration camps have long been a grim sightseeing attraction. The most unusual is Terezín, a popular day trip for visitors to Prague.

Terezín Trauma Tourism Travel Ideas

Terezín was an elegant little town of 4,000 people with gorgeous mansions and grand terraces. But once the Nazis conquered Czechoslovakia, they realised this walled town would make an ideal Jewish ghetto. Jews were sent there in their thousands from across Europe as Hitler’s empire expanded.

Rows of bunk beds were crammed into every room, while other people squeezed into the lofts and basements. When the population hit 58,000, each person had just over a square metre of living space. Food was scarce and the taps often ran dry.

In total, 139,667 people were exiled to Terezín between 1941 and 1945, and conditions were so appalling that 33,818 died there. Another 86,934 were deported to extermination camps, and only 3,586 survived.

Now much of the town is a museum where you can walk through the dormitories and visit the crematorium where four ovens worked flat out to burn the bodies. As I walk through the elegant rooms I realise that I’m listening out for ghosts. But all I hear are other tourists and their clicking cameras.

Terezín Trauma Tourism Travel Ideas

For me, Terezín is a more important place to visit than the death camps like Auschwitz because it looks so normal. It would be easy for an extremist government to stealthily replicate it today, rather than attract attention by building actual death camps.

A trip to Auschwitz in Poland is a must, however, although ‘trip’ is a frivolous a word for this chilling experience. The Nazi death camp horrified me by the scale of its premeditated murdering abilities. Each now empty barrack once contained hundreds of prisoners destined to die in gas chambers that could kill a room full of people in just 15 minutes.

Closer to home

South Africa also promotes some traumatic sites, of course, like Cape Town’s Robben Island and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. But these centres celebrate victory and resilience as much as they starkly remind us of the atrocious past.

South Africa Trauma Tourism Travel Ideas

The Apartheid Museum describes itself as a beacon of hope, showing the world how South Africa is coming to terms with its oppressive past and working towards a future that all South Africans can call their own.

Actor John Kani, who chaired its board of trustees, said the main aim was “to show local and international visitors the perilous results of racial prejudice and how this nearly destroyed the country, and in so doing destroyed people’s lives and caused enormous suffering.”

The latest site on the trauma tourism map is in Alabama in America. The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in April 2018 as the first memorial dedicated to black slaves, victims of lynching, and African Americans humiliated by racial segregation.

Steel columns etched with the names of more than 4,400 lynching victims dangle from the roof above you, just like their bodies swung from the trees. The museum challenges the endurance of white supremacy at a time when President Donald Trump is driving the US to reembrace deliberate racial prejudice.

Its founder is civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who said: “The law will be insufficient to create justice if we don’t also create a consciousness about our history and address the burden that so many Americans carry.”

The museum records how supposedly civilised people gleefully attended lynchings and even took their children to watch people being burned or hung. “That has created a disease where we have become indifferent to the victimisation of black people. We have to treat that disease,” Stevenson said.

If trauma tourism can help us to question our own behaviour and keep a closer check on others, I’m all in favour.

Story by Lesley Stones

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