I've read books on the Khmer Rouge before... about Pol Pot and the destruction of a country once upon a time and not very long ago. About mass starvation, mass murder, institutional paranoia, institutional anomy. The elimination of culture.
It was Year Zero and everyone had to go. Madness.
Today all the nightmares in those books came alive as i wandered the corridors of S-21, Pol Pot's secret prison for political dissidents back in the 70s. In the four years the Khmer Rouge was in power 20,000 people passed through S-21... in the process they were interrogated, tortured, and made to confess to crimes against a regime that needed enemies more than anything else.
Only seven people walked out of S-21 alive.
Even the guards that worked at the prison, some of them responsible for carrying out torture, weren't safe and ended up being betrayed and imprisoned/tortured themselves. It's a mini-auschwitz but infinitely more chilling than auschwitz could ever be. An estimated 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 Cambodians, roughly a third of the population, disappeared under Pol Pot in just 4 years.
Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, the building that housed S-21 was actually a school... the courtyard is spacious and shaded by coconut, banana and frangipani. The floors are tiled in cheerful yellow and white patterns... and i think that became one of the most powerful things about the place. The floors were always the same, whether it was under a rusty metal bedframe with chains, or near a wall with a row of manacles, maybe near a barred window cobwebbed with barbed wire, or under a row of mugshots of the prisoners before they were tortured or executed. And those mugshots...
fucking hell... as a secret prison they couldn't have possibly known what was going to be done to them there yet in some of the faces seem horrified. It's like they knew they weren't going to live. Some faces are defiant, some ambivalent and some even cheerful... old young man woman... the only thing they share is that they were all killed.
There's a place about 15 km out of town that served as the main execution center for people coming from S-21 and elsewhere... when the moto drivers offer to take you to a place called the 'killing fields,' this is the place they have in mind. They've excavated many of the graves... i'm not sure how many thousands of corpses they found, but if the shelves of skulls are any indication, i'd say they've been busy little people. The excavated graves are just open pits quite close together with little dirt paths linking them together. Old pieces of fabric litter the ground half-buried like little flags in the dirt. Human teeth are common finds when strolling and there's a jar where you can deposit any remains you come across while visiting. Looking at the shreds of fabric littering the paths i realized i wasn't just walking on torn pieces of shirts and scarves... there were bits of bone stamped into the pathway. Ribs. Femurs. Pieces of skull.