13 March 2012

A school for pain

If you found the story of the killing fields was distressing, you may choose to skip this post. It is painful too.

In Phnom Pen, we went to what was known as S-21 Detention Centre under the the Khmer Rouge. Today it is called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Once a primary and secondary school, the four three-story classroom blocks were converted into detention cells. The compound was surrounded by two rows of corrugated iron fencing and dense barbed wire. In three classroom blocks, 1 x 2 meter cells made of rough brick were constructed on the first floor. These cells held individual prisoners while the classrooms on the upper two floors held many prisoners in shackles.

People suspected of traitorous activities of any kind were brought to this place. People accused of leading the uprising against the Pol Pot revolution were detained in Cell Block A. These cells contained a bare iron bed, a blanket, a mat, a metal or plastic bucket as a toilet. Prisoners were shackled to the bed frame.

The interrogators were vicious; the cell guards were teenaged boys and girls who would themselves be killed if they did not follow orders. We were told that inevitably they were killed, for after three months or so of working in this hellhole, they knew too much. It was their turn to go to the killing field. They were quickly replaced.

The interrogation methods were hideously similar to the methods we have learned about in recent years: beatings, electric shock, water boarding. For most prisoners, this went on for some weeks until they had confessed or informed on others. Astonishingly, there are seven people who survived S-21. Six are still alive today.

Although I have visited prisons and places of execution before, Tuol Sleng was the grimmest I have seen. I could weep for the poor souls who passed through these doors. Nearly 24,000 prisoners were named in the S-21 records between 1975 and 1978. Such a place is the essence of evil. The Cambodian people say remembering the victims of the Khmer Rouge and their suffering is critical to preventing the emergence of a new Pol Pot.


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