A school is a place where people can better their lives through education. School can lead to a good job with a good house and a well looked after family. So how does a place of learning turn into one of horror and torture? S-21 in Phnom Penh had been a high school. By 1975 it had turned into a place where academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. were tortured and interrogated before being executed.
It costs $2 to visit S-21 a place I would gladly pay $5-10 to see. Upon entering the first building it is obvious that this is not going to be your typical museum. There are no pristine artifacts securely placed behind bulletproof glass, only signs asking visitors to please not touch the instruments of torture. Everything has been left just how the Khmer Rouge left it. Visitors are asked to keep quite, a rule that most observe and the silence while standing in a room that would have once been filled with the screams of victims chills you to the bone.
The third floor of Building A still somewhat resembled a school with no torture devises on display and blackboards still firmly attached to the peeling walls. It even had that old school smell. So many feelings came over me all at once as I walked from room to room, confusion, sickness, bitterness, sadness, shock and hatred
The looks on the faces of prisoners ranged from horror and shock to fear and confusion and in a few instances amusement. The amused faces are hard to take in because you know their fate. You know that while at the time they may have been thinking it couldn’t be that bad that it was in fact that bad and perhaps worse.
All the pictures are hard to look at but perhaps the hardest to view were those of the children. You can't help but stare at them and think what could these children have possibly done to earn such a fate? How could someone torture children? Oh how they must have screamed for their mothers, their mothers who were locked away in cells far away or haphazardly buried miles away in shallow graves. How do you explain why such horrible things are happening to your children when you don’t understand them yourself?
You wander through room after room of primitive yet destructive torture devises and photographs of the mutilated bodies of prisoners who never got a fair trial or explanation. It was the very worst of human behaviour in great detail on display for everyone to see.
Next comes a place with a name that leaves nothing to the imagination. The Killing Fields.
The field looks like a battleground. Every few feet there is another huge divot. It’s as though hundreds of bombs were dropped during a war but then you learn that there were no bombs, no army blitzed the area. These are the shallow graves where thousands of innocent people were disposed of like compost. Signs tell of the bodies recovered from several sites. There were 405 found from this one, 166 headless corpses from that one and over 100 naked bodies of women and children from that one over there.
There are 2 trees on the property that served cruel purposes. One called The Killing Tree was used to beat children. One observer described how the tree was covered with blood, brain matter, skin and hair. The other tree was called The Magic Tree, which was used to blast noise from a loud speaker that would drown out the moans of those being executed.
The Killing Fields are quite small and eerily peaceful. Butterflies flutter around mass graves traveling from one delicate purple flower to another. Chickens peck around trees used to hang the outspoken and beat the children while nearby students laugh and run around their schoolyard.
And as an observer you take it all in as you walk over shards of bone that have appeared over night brought out of their shallow graves by heavy rains and you look around marveling at a world at odds with the past.