WARNING : some people may find the content and images in this post distressing.
Sitting at the darkest end of the Dark Tourism spectrum are visits to sites where atrocities have taken place. Because these occurred within living memory, these locations cannot be sanitized or the trauma erased from memory.
In 1994, Rwanda witnessed the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. The horrific acts of genocide which took place were sickening. While the people and government of Rwanda confront the challenge of conservation and tourism, political tensions still exist and many people live in fear of reprisals. For some it is too early to forget and move on. For them the pain remains.
For some Rwandans, conservation is seen as necessary – to preserve a memorial site, to remind everyone what happened and to ensure that this is never happens again. For the government it is a source of tourist income. But should visitors be encouraged to feed off the fate of innocent victims and why would people choose to visit such gruesome sites?
One author comments that there is ‘an increased interest in death, disaster and atrocity’ and that such sites have recently become acceptable products for consumption in the global tourist industry. He refers to this as ‘a growing phenomenon of late twentieth century tourism’.
Visitors to Rwanda spend an average of less than three days in the country and can choose between eco-tourism and genocide tourism. Some visit such sites as the Nyamata Church were 10,000 villagers were killed or the old Technical College where 45,000 people were rounded-up and slaughtered; a place where ‘the remains of hundreds of lime-covered decomposing bodies – adults and children, hacked and broken, mouths open in silent screams’ cover the floors and benches of every room. This trauma site has been described as ‘unaltered and unsanitized’.
Certainly visiting Rwanda is not for the faint-hearted, but for international tourists, ‘the recent traumatic historical events are simultaneously re-appropriated, remembered and forgotten’. However, for Rwandans the controversy over conservation, preservation and visitation is still ongoing.
Cambodia – the Killing Fields bloom
As in Africa, the events which occurred in Cambodia in the 1970s are still too fresh to be forgotten or ignored. Over a period of three year, eight months and twenty days, 1.7 million people were slaughtered.
Although Cambodia is still struggling to re-emerge from its years of shame, the government has chosen the bold, yet controversial path of revelation – of presenting the atrocities which occurred under the Pol Pot regime via the tourism industry. When considering the nature of visitation, the expectation of tourists, the emotional state of the visitors and the nature of the site, one author claims some people are fascinated by death saying it is the macabre or gruesome elements which attracts them.
Today, the Tuol Svay High School just outside Phnom Penh (re-named S-21) is a ‘much visited’ trauma site. In this location alone 14,000 people were tortured and interrogated. Only seven survived. In an otherwise empty room a steel bed frame, complete with shackles shows where the prisoners suffered. Elsewhere in the building rooms are papered with thousands of photographs of victims who died in agony under that roof.
It is hoped that conservation of this site will stand as a warning that this sort of event should never happen again. For the generation who lost loved ones but survived the brutality, conservation provides an opportunity to grieve openly as part of the path to healing. But there are others who would prefer not to broadcast this horrific episode of genocide.
Conserved trauma sites in Cambodia include the villages of Nyamata and Ntarama. Here in the Churches thousands more were slaughtered. This aspect of Dark Tourism is ‘occupying a tense divide between voyeurism and social justice’. Tourists have various expectations and motivations, and dark tourism ‘remains an ambivalent pursuit’.
After considering thanotourism in these two third world countries, Part 3 will look at several different trauma sites in Tasmania – a British colonial state, founded in the early 1800s under an often brutal and cruel regime.
Sources are available if required.