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Graced by Ghosts


NEXT to the sign looms some kind of large wooden construction. With a bit of imagination, it looks like an old goal post. But it isn’t. It is a fine example of the Khmer Rouge’s infamous torture skills. The prisoners’ feet would be tied to the top bar, with hands bound behind their backs, they were hung into a big cement basin of sewage. The security regulations on the imposing sign are equally sinister:

“You must answer accordingly to my question – don’t turn them away.
Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.

Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
Don’t tell me either about you immoralities of the essence of the revolution.
While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you do something, you must do it right way without protesting.[…]

If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.”

The disappeared

The sign is firmly stuck into the ground of a former primary school in Cambodia. The building is situated in a fairly peaceful part in the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh. A group of young children sit along one of the faded yellow walls, wearily passing a boll to and fro. Suddenly, an unexpected breeze sweep the courtyard and they stretch out to seek the borrowed comfort of the welcoming, albeit short, break from the intense heat.

The deceptive image, however, belies a violent history. In 1975 the radical communist party Khmer Rouge turned the Toul Sleng school into on of the country’s nastiest detention and interrogation centre. It became known as S-21, short for Security prison nr 21. Up to 20,000 people were systematically tortured and died slow deaths here between 1975-79. 

Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge was pedantic in their sadism. Manager Comrade Dutch and his staff photographed all the inmates before and after they tortured them. They kept extensive records of their names, age, height, weight and copies of all their ‘confessions’. Usually they were forced to claim that they had worked for KGB, CIA or Hanoi.

During their almost four years of ruling, the Khmer Rouge, headed by Salot Sar, or more commonly known as Pol Pot, managed to kill perhaps as many as two million people, or a third to a fourth of its entire population. Today, I am witnessing one of the world’s most macabre genocides.

In one of the former classrooms, I am surrounded by thousands of pictures of people who lost their lives here. To think what they might have thought, to feel what they might have felt, when posing for that photography is, to me, impossible.  I see fear, anguish, confusion, mixed with the odd smile like a plea to the guards to take pity on them.  This piece of world history is beyond the imagination of mankind. My thoughts are suddenly interrupted by three smiling teenage monks: “ What’s your native country? What’s your name? Have you got a husband?” When I decline on the latter, they want to know if I’ve got a boyfriend. It’s a bizarre feeling. In the midst of all this horror are the monks, deluded by their solitary probe, trying to chat me up. It’s not the first time the sight of a monk surprises me; I have seen several puffing on a fag at the back of a friend’s moped and drinking Coke. I even saw one carrying around a television set in rush hour Phnom Penh. Anyone can, and many do, swop his saffron clothing and go back to a life of theft and corruption from one day to another. Here, you can be a monk for a very short time by attending a monastery to learn the philosophy of Buddhism for as long as you want, or can afford. It’ll give you status. But I am intrigued, and want to know how they see this place. What do they feel?  What is it like to grow up next to a house ruled by pure evil? But their young minds ignore my questions and start to talk about how they long to go and see the temples of Angkor Watt. Soon, after I’ve told them about my boyfriend, they giggle, thank me with a bow, and leave me to go outside and light a fag to share. Their robes shine in the sun and give colour to the human shadows that are still lingering. 

Monks pray for a better future

I encountered a similar story outside Battambang, Cambodia’s second city; I found myself inside the Phnom Sampeau cave staring at a big pile of skulls, bones and blood stained clothes. At the same time my boyfriend was asked to help three monks translate an article about the Iraq War and George Bush. Again, the three monks seemed oblivious to the terrible history that unfolded just in front of us. Instead we had to focus our attention on another war and on the wrinkly photocopied paper they were holding on to.

Around the square lawn, there are three blocks of houses. In the one furthest to your left stands a black, steel bed frame in each room. Each bed tells its own morbid story. Above each hangs a photo showing how the last person executed was found, only hours after the Vietnamese had seized control over the deserted capital. Beaten, blood stained, starved bodies. Only seven people escaped alive. Many bodies ended up at Choeung Ek – the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh (featured in the movie with the same name). Here, a field spreads out in front of me. It is a nightmare in green. The inmates were often hit by an iron bar at the back of their skulls and children repeatedly swung into trees full of rusty nails. The Khmer Rouges didn’t want to waste any bullets. Again, the contrasts strike me; children run, laugh and play around the overgrown mass graves, which have formed big green holes in the ground. It looks like bomb craters.

To me, history seems often an illusion here. Are these games to say that life goes on, or is it ignorance? Sometimes I am inclined to believe the latter. Many ex Khmer Rouges still walk the streets of Cambodia as free men.  Some are high ranking politicians, not keen on letting their pasts spoil the present. Therefore, the children are normally not taught history in school. I am even told that some of the rooms inside the S-21 are shut for the benefit of govern a nation forced to live in oblivion. 

The spoils of war continues in the next block. The big rooms are divided into small cells by orange bricks hurriedly piled on top of each other, Instead of windows, many have an iron bar attached to the floor so that the prisoners could be fettered naked onto the cement floor at nights. Any unauthorized movement would result in torture or death. The atmosphere of this torture is everywhere; blood spots on the walls, the evidence.

Capable of betraying their own parents, even sending them to their deaths, children aged between twelve and sixteen were the cruelest guards. Having grown up without moral values or love, having known only fear and hate, they were given positions of total power. Also lovers betrayed partners, brothers betrayed sisters, sisters betrayed brothers. Friendships and smiles vanished. No matter what anyone said or did, S-21 was just a long, horrid wait for death. Everything inside the compound’s surrounding walls still feels polluted by the past.

As I exit, the sun is about to set. The hot weather has become more manageable. Its last rays throw long shadows on the icecreamed coloured houses, and people dare to leave their dens where they’ve been hiding from the midday sun, to come out and look at the amazing spectacle. As the giant red ball disappears behind the high cement walls, the town takes a deep breath.

The young children, who have been resting in the shadow since I arrived, slowly start to kick their ball about again. Soon, the game is in full bloom. Their dirty T-shirts make for goal posts. I glance at the other look-alike goal post and see a remarkable mixture of life and death. But kids do what kids do best; play and think about only the present. As Cambodia’s past has been a tragedy, the many happy and strong willed children and teenagers I meet seem a telling sign for a hopeful future.

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