Back to school, the words that every kid hates to hear but it’s back to school for us today at S-21 in Phnom Penh. It’s not strictly a school any more; education facility is a more apt description as rust streaks stain the bare concrete facades of the three storey school blocks of functional architecture too stark to feel like a school nowadays. There’s no bright colours left, they faded in the patch of time when this place was neither a school or an education facility, when it was something very different. In that time, youthful hope was snatched away along with the bright colours, smiling children and proud parents collecting them at the end of a day. From 1975-1979, this school was a prison, it was a torture facility, it was where Cambodians came to die. The buildings remain; square blocky uniformity flanks a central area that nearly, if you try really hard, feels like it could be a playground. Nearly. Irony drips in the story of a school becoming a place of torture but under a regime that outlawed education maybe irony isn’t the right word at all.
Stepping through the gates the bustling streets outside cease to produce any noise, there’s a punch in the gut coming in this vacuum of severe concrete buildings, we just know it. No it’s not a school anymore, it could never be a place for children again. The history lesson comes first in this journey as this place reaches out to regain some sense of the educational intent it once strived for. We all know, or should know, of names like the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the Killing Fields; for many these names are all people know of Cambodia, a rich and diverse nation refined to an atrocity. As always, the pointed end of the story that makes the news has a background that played out before S-21 even scratched a consciousness.Pol Pot and his cadres swept to power on the back of Chinese finance as global communism of the time was cracking in two: China supporting Cambodia, Russia supporting neighbouring Vietnam. Within two days of seizing Phnom Penh the population were marched into the countryside to ‘protect’ them against US bombing. In truth Pol Pot was following Mao’s script to the letter; destroy the family unit, eradicate education and thinking, scar humanity into compliance. Dreams of a self sustaining nation living a utopian existence were fed to the world and many took it all in, Sweden particularly became vocal supporters of the Khmer Rouge while torture and killings were rife. Standing in the playground my thoughts swim with the tug-o-war between China and Russia, the spill over of war from America and Vietnam, the apologists in Sweden for the Khmer Rouge. The big kids fight over the Cambodian playground but the only population not represented seems to be the Cambodians.
Four years, or thereabouts, is all it took for the Khmer Rouge to obliterate a quarter of its own population before Pol Pot’s paranoia and extremism fractured his support. His own people turned to the Vietnamese for help and after the relatively short reign of terror the Khmer Rouge were again marginalised into a small guerrilla group hidden in the jungle. Crisis over, time to mend. Incorrect, the story continues as the powers of the west remained fuelled by communist paranoia and refused to legitimise the Vietnamese led liberation of Cambodia; far easier to overlook mass genocide than shake hands with a ‘red’. Thirteen years later, in 1993, the Khmer Rouge were still representing Cambodia with a seat in the UN. The playground bickering spilled onto the streets and involved the world and still Cambodia was yet to be granted a voice.S-21 might never be a school again but education remains its primary function. This place of innocence and growth became a place of torture to process victims, so much of life used to begin here but in that slice of time life only ended. A classroom of dirty walls that no longer houses stick drawings in brightly coloured crayon of families holding hands or sports ribbons is now just worn and scratched bare with the stains of blood and excrement so permanent. Gruesome pictures of decaying bodies, gore spilled liberally with distorted limbs look down upon small bed frames that in another place might be kitsch, rustic and cute. The beds that the deformed corpses remain chained to in the pictures look eerily similar, a closer inspection of a bent bar here, a missing rod there draws pause; the bed in the middle of the room is the bed in the picture. Vomit threatens to lurch forth as we involuntarily recoil.
The next room another bed and another grotesque image, the next room the same, and the next and the next all stories of horror fiction played out over too many years. Up to level two, the repetition is debilitating. Like the prisoners here there’s no escaping the grip of what this place is. Level three; stories form of mothers chained down and stung by scorpions, fathers bodies twisted and broken. Building one torments us while we scurry a little faster than usual urged on by a desire to put the torture behind us. Hearts beat a little faster, breaths are drawn shallower, eyes are glazed; and we’re only burdened by thoughts. Yes this could never be a school again.
Building two; just when you thought you had escaped building one. To say that visiting S-21 is a sobering experience is to undersell it, it’s horrific. Through classrooms amended to house numerous small cells wrapped in shrouds of barbed wire we tread the halls of horror that now layer heavily with sadness. Entire floors of buildings are dedicated to photographic displays of the victims, S-21 was meticulous in its killing and in a twist of fortune, the dead are now anything but faceless. Row upon row, room upon room looks down upon us in black and white, a nation of faces all with numbered tags to mark the livestock in the abattoir. S-21 was for political prisoners, which meant that you were educated, spoke another language or had just signs of education like soft hands. So many are children. Pol Pot famously said that ‘To take out grass you must remove the roots’, entire families were routinely eradicated. The rooms continue forever in a sea of photographs, still life’s of stilled lives. At work I use repetition and consistency of imagery to sell things; things like shampoo. To have these same marketing strategies used against me is enough to draw back the bile once more, it’s too effective to be used this way.The education continues as we read testimonials of survivors and victims alike, what strikes me is the maturity and honesty of this place. There exists no vehement desire for retribution, no fanatical creation of enemies to hate as politics unbelievably takes a back seat, this is a place for healing and Cambodia can only be commended for the balanced and honest way of acknowledging what has happened. Testimonial after testimonial draws forward words of warning to never let this happen again in place of very understandable hatred, even the criminal proceedings that are still underway are underpinned by notations of the credible legal representatives of the perpetrators. Hats off to you Cambodia, we could never begrudge you for indulging in fervent vengeance but in its place you choose justice. I don’t know if I could be that brave.
In the power struggles of the world’s playground the Cambodian people had no voice, no one to represent them, they were faceless. Eventually we come to a photo that stops me as nearly all have threatened to do, a young boy, maybe twelve or thirteen years old. Around his neck is the number one. The first political prisoner, the term political prisoner applied to a child just riles my anger; I keep thinking of the crime of soft hands. The first victim, the first rebel to threaten the state was a small boy staring at the camera unknowingly, distracted. The big kids rumbled in the playground while Cambodia had no face, had no face worth noting except for the nation that stared into the camera.
We farewell the playground back through the gates as the streets of Phnom Penh regain their sound and life. We aren’t talking much now except to console our rocked worlds so shaken even though we knew most of what happened here; we knew it but we couldn’t stop the onslaught that stole the colour from a place to play. The playground in truth was far bigger than this one, it was the world of the great powers and in the innocence and naivety of political prisoner number one Cambodia now has a face that the world can see, should have seen all along. The boy who’s mother had soft hands.