The hot air, heavy with exhaust fumes and the occasional aroma of inept sewers violates my senses as Jenny and I walk down the narrow, crowded streets of Phenom Penh. This neighborhood appears like many others in the Capital City of Cambodia; motorbikes jockey for position with the steady blare of horns, women sit lazily under makeshift tarp shelters, swatting flies and selling noodles, small portions of BBQ meat, and every sundry of textiles imaginable. Mangy dogs, nipples dragging on the ground, roam the dusty streets, searching for a handout or a scrap of chicken bone tossed aside. The mood is cheerful and relaxed, underemployed tuk tuk drivers smoke, smile easy and laughingly joke each other under the shade of tall mango trees. The hint of violence seems thousands of miles away and I struggle to wrap my head around the atrocities that have occurred in this country during my lifetime. Forboding coils of rusting razor wire atop walls of crumbling concrete announce our arrival at Chao Ponhea Yat High School, more notoriously known as Security Prison 21 of the Khmer Rouge.
In April 1975, Communist Khmer Rouge soldiers marched through the streets of Phenom Penh, marking their victory against the American backed Republican Government of Lon Nol. Although this pronounced an end to a savage five years of bloody civil war, it also marked the beginning of one of the most barbarous periods of inhuman and merciless ethnic cleansing the world has ever known.
Pol Pot, the ruthless leader of the Khmer Rouge envisioned a new Kampuchea, a pure agrarian society free of the poisonous influence of capitalism and westerner corruption. To accomplish his goal, the Khmer completely evacuated the capital, forcing men and women, young and infirm to walk for days to forced labor camps spread throughout the countryside. At first, former government employees and soldiers were systematically executed for simply ending up on the wrong side of the victory line. As the deranged paranoia of the Khmer Rouge grew, academics, doctors, teachers, students, monks, and factory workers; anyone seen as a threat to the Khmer were arrested and taken to prison camps such as the notorious S-21. Prisoners at Tuol Sleng were methodically tortured until they confessed to being agents of the CIA, KGB or spies for Vietnam and wrote forced confessions detailing their crimes against the Khmer. Despite their innocence, the accused admitted to all charges, often indicting family members, neighbors, co-workers and friends who were in-turn arrested and routinely executed. The Khmer lived by the moto, To kill the grass, you must remove even the roots. Entire families were erased to eliminate the prospect that one member might someday seek revenge.
As I walk the halls of this former school with classrooms converted into tiny cells, barred windows and blood stained floors, the muted echoes of the screaming horrors that occurred in this place pierce the stoic silence of visitors. I look out on the well kept courtyard at the pull-up bars and climbing apparatus that the Khmer converted into gallows and think of the young people who once honed their young bodies here under the hot Cambodian sun. The tragic irony that a school, an institution of hope and ambition was turned into a place of repressive suffering sickens my soul to its core and makes me wonder how this atrocity occurred here not so long ago.
For the first years of S-21's existence, the cadres buried their victim's bodies near the prison, but by the end of 1976 the genocide had reached hysteric levels and they were simply running out of room to dispose of the dead. Just one of over one hundred and fifty mass extermination centers that litter the countryside of Cambodia, Choeng Ek tells the story of a revolution turned to paranoia. After securing the forced confessions of the innocent at S-21, prisoners were loaded on trucks and driven 15 km out of the city to a quite countryside site of an old Chinese graveyard. Blindfolded, they were forced to kneel at the edge of huge pits where the were hacked, bludgeoned, or stabbed to death by guards; bullets being expensive and in short supply. The bodies were dumped into mass unmarked graves and buried without ceremony. An estimated 20,000 people walked through the doors of Tuol Sleng Prison; twelve left with their lives when the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia from the Khmer in 1979. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, over 2,000,000 Cambodians were executed, a full quarter of this country's population. An entire generation of people were lost to this senseless destruction.
As I stand before the memorial to the slain, a towering Buddhist Pagoda, filled with the remains of those exhumed from the graves of Choeng Ek, I can't help but wonder what sinister evil lurks at the edge of humanity that allows men to dehumanize each other to the point that they could systematically beat, rape and exterminate their countrymen in the name of political ideology. Visiting places like these shakes my faith in humanity to the core and leaves me wondering where our world is headed. I like to think that mankind is learning, moving forward in peace, but recent genocidal violence in Armenia, Rwanda, Sudan, Afghanistan and presently in Syria and Burma points to the contrary.
It troubles me when I don't know answers, when I can't rationalize things that I see in a way that makes sense, when I feel like there is little justice in the world. The truth is that some actions of men are beyond explanation, and seeking understanding of the indiscernible will leave one more confabulated than when he began. Edmund Burke once said, All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing, and his words help me untangle the mess of emotions inside my head. Lines of right and wrong however, are sometimes gray and I can't say what I might have said or done had the Khmer pulled my fingernails out with pliers, poured boiling water on my face, or skinned me alive. I like to think that I would stand tall, suffer well and protect the ones that I love, but I don't know that for sure. I hope to never find out.
I find solace that in this year of travel, I have found that there are more people in this world who stand for peace, justice and kindness than there are that would see the world a dark place of fear, pain and suffering. I will stand with those people in my days here, work to make those ideals a reality and pray that I will always find myself on the right side of the line, and more importantly, able to look myself in the mirror at the end of each day.