Tuesday, January 24, 2012

S21: From School to Prison

While in Phnom Penh, we visited a very sobering site known as S21. Just years after it was built as a school (Tuol Svay Prey High School), the Khmer Rouge transformed the site into a prison where "Enemies of the Revolution" were detained, tortured, and killed. Aside from the barbed-wire meshed fence covering some entrances and balcony openings on the second floor, it still retained the resemblance of a school. Upon entering a classroom, however, things  looked much different. In place of desks and chairs, several rooms contained a single bed, a box for bodily functions, and iron devices used to secure the hands and feet to the bed. Some also contained a chair and desk, from where a member of the Khmer Rouge would meticulously document about the current prisoner, including the torture process. 

In another room, large panels displayed the photos of some of the 12,000 -20,000 individuals that went through the prison. Amongst the stark black&white photos were the faces of children. Hanging on the walls of some rooms were large photos of the decomposing bodies of tortured prisoners still shackled the bed when the prison was liberated, with pools of dried blood staining the floor beneath. Corners of the rooms also bore signs of torture, as did the blood spatters on the ceiling. Going up a very normal school stairway, we walked though rooms subdivided into crude cells the width of a toilet stall and other rooms subdivided with bricks. 

According to our guide, the barbed wire covering the balcony openings was to prevent prisoners from jumping to kill themselves. In another room I read some of the excerpts written by the seven survivors, including an art teacher who believed he was answering the request for an art professor position. Of the two alive today, one was on-site, selling his book. One can only imagine the horrors he experienced within these walls.

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