We are on the grounds of a high school, one that looks like many other high schools that we’ve seen in developing countries: a few buildings facing a central courtyard area, basic brick and cement, barren classrooms on two levels, a wall surrounding the complex Outside of the wall motos buzz, horns honk, people on the street yell to one another. It could be any city street anywhere, but the barbed wire on the wall, spilling over like frozen, threatening tumbleweeds, are the first indication that it is not.
This is no longer a high school. It is the remains of the S-21 prison grounds, one of many such complexes used by Cambodia’s Khmer-Rouge in the 1970’s. The Khmer-Rouge was a wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) and were responsible for the killing of 2 million people in the four years that they ruled. The Khmer-Rouge drove people from cities- like Pnomh Penh, where S-21 is- to work on communal farms. Many of these people died of heat stroke, starvation, exhaustion, and a number of other conditions.
The people we learn the most about during our informative, self-guided audio tour through S-21 are the people that were imprisoned there for being intellectuals. To be honest, the complexities of what happened in Cambodia in these few short years is new knowledge for me.
The tour through S-21conjures ghosts. The old classrooms in Building A were used as rooms for administering various forms of torture. If they choose to enter, visitors see the blood stains on the floors and walls, by now more than 40 years old. The original bed frames and chamber pots remain, and each room holds a picture of one its former occupants as they were during their time at S-21. Outside of building A are the few graves of victim’s whose bodies were recovered.
In Building B, the classrooms were converted to crude, brick cells about 5 feet by 5 feet. When I entered, I could feel the prisoners here. I ran my fingers over the bricks, and quickly pulled away in a sort of shock at realizing that this all remains as it was when innocent people were held here; prisoners of the Khmer-Rouge touched the same walls that my fingers now grazed.
Past the cells and into Building C are countless display cases full of mugshots of the inhabitants of the prison, men, women and children alike. Mixed in are pictures of the the Khmer-Rouge higher-ups. Pol Pot, the leader, is pictured in glasses; he ordered many to be killed because of their glasses and the subsequent assumption that those who wear glasses are intellectuals.
Beyond that, Building D holds displays and paintings-done by a survivor- of torture tools and methods. And finally, a shelf of skulls. The magnitude, the human side, the reality of this war finally sets in.
I find myself rushing through the last rooms in utter disbelief.
I am in disbelief that so much remains as it was, the record-keeping of communist leader proving his efforts for the advancement of his party.
I am in disbelief that humans can do these things to other humans.
I am in disbelief that we always say the world will never let it happen again, but it does: Nazi Germany, the Khmer -Rouge, Rwanda.
I am in disbelief that I never learned about this war in school. In fact, it hits me, I don’t recall one ocassion in school when we learned about a war that wasn’t centered around developed nations and- for lack of more eloquent phrasing-white people.
I knew almost nothing of Robert Mugabe and the land takeovers before I moved to Mozambique and had conversations with the Zimbabweans living there that were driven from their country.
I had only once heard of Mozambique’s decades of war, and that from a Mozambican who was studying at my university.
I knew so little about colonialism and how deep the effects really run and how long they last for those colonized. This I felt in Mozambique too, and now I feel it here in Southeast Asia.
I was blown away by the complexities of South Africa when we were searching for our lodging there and asked directions. ‘Is the owner white or black?’ we were asked. ‘If white the house will be on that side of the street, if black it will be on the other side.’
I learned of the 1980’s Contras in Nicaragua when we ate dinner in a military airplane turned sundowner restaurant in Costa Rica
And sitting on a bench in the S-21 prison courtyard, imagining students there and then innocent victims of civil war and genocide, I bowed my head in sadness for the Khmer people that endured their war in the 1970’s and for the American involvement in this region- known as The Secret War during the years that the U.S. Was in Vietnam- of which I knew nothing about.
The realization of how little I know always creeps up in new places. I can read books, watch documentaries, and devour news. I can talk to people. I can listen to people. I can learn so much invaluable information in these ways. But I become only more and more convinced that there is no better way to learn about the world than to go to somewhere unfamiliar to me, be among its people, and to feel its ghosts.