Feeling Uncomfortable is Important

Feeling comfortable is also important, I imagine you are feeling comfortable when you are reading this. At least I hope you are, why else would you be reading when you are uncomfortable? Who does that?

One thing I try to do is make myself feel uncomfortable. Not physically, I avoid that at all costs. I mean emotionally. Throughout history there have been a huge number of tragedies, atrocities, genocides and all sorts of untold humanitarian disasters and crisis. Being British born means that I am fortunate enough to have avoided these. However, that also means that I know very little about them. What I do know has been self educated, or even a small amount at school. That is nothing compared to visiting places and feeling the emotion and the air where something happened. It makes you feel uncomfortable. It makes you feel strange and weird in your own skin, sometimes it gives you hope for humanity and sometimes you despair at mankind.

During my travels around the world I’ve visited four places that really stuck with me: Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, The War Remnants Museum, Hanoi, The Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh , and Valle de los Caídos, Madrid. All of these places have stuck with me, and I’ve learnt a lot about myself and mankind by visiting them.

For me, it’s important to visit these sites, but it isn’t some morbid fascination, although I understand that completely. Coming from a country where these kinds of events are unimaginable naturally brings curiosity. Especially as many of them feel like they are from a nightmarish movie script. I feel like it is my duty to experience these places, and to learn about what happened. This makes me feel uncomfortable, being in these places affects me emotionally, but the only way to learn from history is to study it. As well as that I feel I that only by understanding the worst of what humanity has been, can we really want to be our best.

Yad Vashem

Based in Jerusalem, this a very modern museum and is a very interesting experience. It is dedicated to those who died in the Holocaust during WWII. I will be honest, I don’t remember much of it, I went about 8 years ago now. What I do remember is there is one pitch black room, just filled with photos of people who died in the holocaust. That, in particular, is what stuck with me. Seeing nothing but the faces of people who died.

The final stone at the exit of Yad Vashem

The War Remnants Museum

Originally named “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression”, and before that it was a small exhibition named “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”. This is a museum set in the centre of Hanoi, Vietnam, and is filled with information and exhibitions about the Vietnamese War. Before travelling to Vietnam I had learnt nothing about the war, I knew it existed, I’d seen a bunch of American films about it, but realistically I couldn’t give you a solid piece of information on it. Which is exactly why I wanted to go to this museum, to learn about it. Admittedly it is a biased museum. It’s in the capital of Vietnam, a country still sufferring from the war in a region that has had its fair share of political difficulties in the past century. Nevertheless, reading, hearing and watching about Agent Orange, chemical warfare and what happened on the Vietnamese side of the war was very emotional. Learning about what the country and the people went through during the war was intense. I found very interesting how graphic the exhibits were, which I thought was appropriate. What stuck with me from this museum was the clear scarring in the very culture of the country from the war, how significantly the people and country has been damaged.

The Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia

Phnom Penh is home to this museum, and also to one of the most unspoken tragedies I’ve ever learnt about. I spent a day visiting the Killing Fields and associated museums in the area. The Khmer Rouge was a communist party which was led by Pol Pot and ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During this time it is estimated that 1.3 million people were executed, buried in 20,000 mass graves and in conjunction with associated famines there are estimates that up to 3.42 million people died.

I visited the Killing Fields themselves, a site home to several of the mass graves where you could view the graves, and see a monolith built to house the skulls and remains that were found at the site, all marked as to how they were killed. A very haunting scene. The wound is so fresh here that our guide openly admitted if he met the man who killed his grandfather, he would kill him himself.

The most haunting part of the experience was meeting the two survivors from the iterrogations. Two survivors. One was kept alive because he was an engineer and fixed typewriters for the regime, the other because he was a phenomenal artist and painted the infamous painting of Pol Pot. Both cried when they told me their stories. Looking into the eyes of someone who spent their days just outside the very prison they were kept in was something I will never forget.

One of the two survivors from the prison we visited

Valle de los Caídos

One of the final things I did before leaving Madrid was visit Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen). Spain was also the victim of a modern day atrocity, Fransisco Franco took over the country by force and then continued to rule the country with an iron fist from 1939 until 1975. The valley commemorates the battle between Franco’s Monarchist army and the Republic army that had recently got into power. He marched his way across Spain from the south, successfully until he reached Madrid. The moment represents the site of the battle and although Franco lost here, he ultimately won the war. Upon gaining power he order the construction of the monument, it is a very young monument, styled in old catholic relics but finished in 1959. Inside the walls are draped in tapestries the size of a bus depicting various scenes from the chapter of Revelations from the Bible. Much of the architecture is a step away from a Nazi-esque view of the future. A very haunting place to be. What struck me most here was the scale, the sheer size of this place was insane and really hammered home the extremity of Franco’s reign.

Learning more about Spain’s heritage was important to me, I’m very glad I visited. Interestingly a friend of mine was dubious to go, having lived in Spain for 20 years or so, had never gone. He was worried that it would make him feel terrible, perfectly understandable I think.

The Valley of the Fallen, me for scale

What do you do to feel uncomfortable?

It’s easy to avoid these events in history, especially when they didn’t happen in your country. It’s also easy to do the opposite and get bogged down in how terrible man can be, and how awful everything was for those invovled. Personally I think it’s important to balance the two, we should learn about these things, but it’s important to not let them affect our everyday lives. Otherwise those who committed these atrocities have won.

I still think it is important to push yourself to places you feel might make you feel uncomfortable, only by being there and learning about it second-hand can you really begin to understand man better.

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