My tuk tuk came to a abrupt halt outside what had once been Chao Ponhea Yat High School – but came to the world’s attention as Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the notorious prison used by the Khmer Rouge.
The site is relatively small, four buildings, segregated into two sections with a small courtyard area for both. It is estimated anywhere between 17,000 and 20,000 people were sent here. At any one time the prison would hold between 1000 and 1500, men, woman and children – some political prisoners, but the vast majority guilty of nothing more than being used as scapegoats for the developing disaster within Cambodia.
The first room I entered had been the first the Vietnamese had entered when the prison was captured in 1979. The room was empty except for a battered metal shell of a bed, which lay at an awkward angle. A metal chain locked tightly to the bed leg lay limply on the floor. On the wall hung a picture showing the same bed, in the same position – but with a horribly mutilated corpse lying on top – bloodied and bludgeoned. It looked more animalistic rather than something a human could do. My stomach clenched tight. The air in the room suddenly seemed heavier. The next room was the same, and the next – and the next. These were the final victims of Tuol Sleng. They were buried in the courtyard, just meters from where they were murdered.
Some of the blocks housed ‘normal prisoners’, in large rooms where dozens were shackled to the walls. ‘Special prisoners’ were often afforded their own room – and most likely, special attention. The solitary confinement area was brutally small, with small specks of dried blood clearly still visible on the floor.
The Khmer Rouge was almost absurdly meticulous with the documentation of their brutality. Hundreds of portrait pictures of the newly arrived adorn several of the blocks – hundreds of murdered eyes stare back at you. In a cruel twist some of the faces are even smiling – unaware of what their presence at Tuol Sleng really meant. Others stare back with a blank emptiness, resigned to their impending fate. It is belived only 12 inmates survived the prison – or what came next.
A personal note struck me as I was walking along one of the corridors. The layout of the former high school is eerily similar to that of schools I’ve taught at many times in Hanoi. I felt like I’d been here before. I’d climbed these stairs before. I’d taught in this classroom before. Swarms of tiny children have crashed past me here before, all screaming ‘hello, hello, hello’. I blinked a few times, the memories vanished. Where there would have been desks and smiling children, there were only numbers – leading to shackles on the walls.
I spent two hours in the prison, and sat down in the courtyard before I left. It’s difficult to comprehend such a place. Years before I visited Auschwitz and had the same confused hollowness. The last people were killed here only five years before I was born. This was almost my lifetime – not my parents – not my grandparents. Like that day in southern Poland, here the sun was shining and birds whistled happily in the trees – a beautiful white butterfly landed on the bench beside me. It all seemed completely ridiculous.
The Khmer Rouge came to power through a complex web of mistakes from many different quarters. Many jump to the conclusion that the American bombing raids inside the country had been a primary cause – and though it was a factor, it was by no means the first or even the biggest reason. A combination of Vietnamese, Chinese and American puppetry within the country and the many absurd decisions taken by the Lan Nol regime, which preceded the Khmer Rouge, led to Communist guerilla movement, led by the mysterious Pol Pot, seizing power in 1975. Relief of the end of a bloody civil war was short lived – within days the Khmer Rouge had ordered the evacuation of the cities, forcing millions into the countryside where collectives were formed.
The majority of prisoners did not die in Tuol Sleng. Many were loaded in trucks late at night, often with the assurance that they were being transferred, or even released. In reality their trucks only bounced along for 15 km before stopping at Choeung Ek, a disused farming area just outside Phnom Penh.
I made that same journey. The tuk tuk driver hurtled down a deeply rutted narrow lane – sending me crashing into the metal barriers on either side. Every few hundred meters he would swivel and smile at me. I put on a brave face – and pretended I would not have to check for testicle damage on arrival.
Disastrous is not enough of a word to describe the four years the Khmer Rouge was officially in power. Unrealistic rice quotas were placed on the collectives, often resulting in mass starvation. Viscous purges were repeatedly made throughout the country, as those in power refused to blame the country’s slide into oblivion on their own failing policies. Rice shortages and economical woes were blamed on enemies of the state – instead of the regime itself. When the political prisoners of the previous government had all been murdered, new enemies had to be found. At Tuol Sleng it was painful to read the forced confessions of prisoners – simple farmers absurdly claiming to have been recruited by the CIA, or plotting to disrupt rice production. The fabrications were detailed to the point of fantastical. The agony of torture will make any story possible.
I paid my entrance fee and walked through the arch into Choeung Ek – the Killing Fields. In terms of mass murder there are few places that can come even close to what happened here. Nearly 9000 bodies were discovered in a series of mass graves, with many more yet to be exhumed. Today little is left except a series of oddly placed mounds and trenches. Visitors can take an audio tour and walk around the site. A disturbing warning tells you at the beginning to please not pick up any bone fragments or clothing that you may see on the floor. My eyes instinctively began to scan the ground – it wasn’t long until some came into sight.
Auschwitz had a brutal efficiency to it that will probably never be matched, but Choeung Ek had a savagery that is almost unimaginable. Bullets were considered costly, so most were killed using machetes or farming equipment. Those who were brought here were marched from the trucks to newly dug pits. Bright spot lights eliminated the area – loudspeakers blasted out patriotic music – not to be patriotic, simply to drown out the screams of those being murdered.
In the center of the area is a newly built Buddhist Stupa which holds the skulls of 5000 victims, as well as countless other bones. It’s a tight a squeeze as you move around it, sometimes only inches away from all that is left of the thousands whose final moments came close by.
Vietnamese troops forced the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 (inexplicably they were the still the acknowledged leaders by most Western Nations, and continued to have a seat at the U.N until 1993). The truth slowly emerged from a country that had attempted the most radical social reorganization in living history – but in fact resulted in the deaths of over a quarter of the population. Exact numbers are impossible, but estimates say between 1.7 and 3.5 million people were thought to have died from the Khmer Rouge policies – including disease and starvation. The number of those executed is thought to be well over one million. All together 20,000 mass graves have been discovered so far across Cambodia. One of the last things are I listened to on the audio tour were quotes taken from Pol Pot’s little red book:
“To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain.”
“Hunger is the most effective disease.”
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.”
The problems facing Cambodia are still severe – poverty, corruption and a heartbreaking number of landmines or unexploded ordinances (4-6 million) to name just a few. Almost a third of the population live on less than $1 a day. The psychological damage cannot truly be described in statistics – but one in particular does stand out. As much as 47% of the population suffers from post traumatic stress disorder – even more disturbing, 50% of children born to Khmer Rouge survivors show signs of the disorder – despite never being exposed to the trauma themselves. There is still far go, but when you consider where they have come from since in 1979 – it is commendable. Reconciliation and prosecution has been slow. In 2010 Kang Kek, head of S-21, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in jail. Four other high ranking Khmer Rouge officials are currently standing trial. Pol Pot died in 1998
As I walked around Choeung Ek I came to a chain link fence, where a wooden hut leaned in from the other side. It took me a few moments to realize that this was somebody’s house.
“Hello” a little voice came from behind me. I turned to see a little girl standing on the other side of the fence. Her fingers interlocked with the wire, her face so close her nose peeked through. She was perhaps ten years old, dressed in little more than rags, dirt smudged across her face. Her eyes however stared powerfully and unblinking at me. I took a few steps towards the fence.
“Hello” I replied. She stared at me for a few moments, her head at a slight crooked angle. Slowly a grin crept across her face.
“What’s your name?” I ventured – She erupted into a burst giggles, and scampered away.
I grinned to myself. It was a real brightness on black day. Even in the darkest of places – a smile goes a long way.
Cambodia has the highest rate of land mine injuries per capita anywhere in the world. One in every 384 people is an amputee. This is just one of many groups doing extraordinary work in the country.