I’m in Phnom Penh for a day.
There are many places worth seeing here but S21 or Tuol Sleng, the notorious interrogation centre in Phnom Penh used by the Khmer Rouge supposedly to uncover CIA agents among the innocent educated and professional classes of Kampuchea is perhaps not on the top of everyone’s list.
The building was a high school before the regime took over the city on 17th April 1975. It is now preserved as a memorial and museum to those interred here. ‘Preserved’ is perhaps not the best description of the state of a property which has broken doors and shutters, has received no paint in 35 years and has bare rusty bed frames in many of the classrooms. It is much the same as it was when the corridors rang with the muffled screams and cries of the tortured victims except that it is now strangely quiet and tranquil. A sign near the entrance asks that visitors speak softly and refrain from laughing, singing or making loud noises.
The cost of my ticket was only $2, but the cost of admission during the Khmer Rouge period was much higher. All of those unfortunate victims paid in blood and most paid with their lives as well. Locked in the classrooms, many converted into tiny cells, the victims were beaten, electrocuted, immersed in water and abused in every imaginable way to extract information and confessions. Many were simply beaten to death and are long gone. The bed frames where they were manacled, the instruments of torture and the rusty ammunition boxes once used for human excreta are still here. Rows and rows of photographs taken at the time of their first arrest are the only surviving memorial to so many poor people.
Visiting is an incredibly sobering and yet peaceful experience despite it’s horrific history. I wandered the buildings and grounds while listening on my iPod to the Lord’s Prayer, the ‘Our Father’, set to music in several languages and different musical styles – which reminded me over and over that we receive forgiveness as we learn to forgive others for what they have done. I don’t know what prompted me to play this music except to say that I had been listening to that play-list on a number of occasions over the preceding week.
This was once a school. What did they teach here? Is this where they learned to treat one another in this hateful, inhuman way? I hope not. Cliff Richard’s Millennium Prayer is playing in my ears, ‘Your Kingdom come – Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone of those who sinned against us.’
The Easter holidays are over and children all over the Christian world will return to school oblivious of what happened here, thank God. This place will never return to school or to any other use except to remind us of the poor, innocent victims of many cruel regimes the world over, where this story has been repeated so many, many times, and tragically I doubt that the lessons have been learned even now.