Saturday, January 16, 2016

In Memoriam to Lives Lost: Visiting S-21

Mugshots of Cambodian child prisoners in S-21.
  Last week, I returned from an incredible trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with my family. The trip was special for many reasons: my brother spoke Vietnamese from his LDS mission to Australia, my mother worked with Cambodian refugees during her LDS mission, and it was my first time returning to Asia after returning from my LDS mission to Hong Kong six years ago. Despite visa issues, food poisoning, a stolen and returned passport, squatting toilets, crossing frenetic streets without stoplights, and striving to understand tour guides with limited English, it was a truly memorable and wonderful experience to be together.

Whenever I travel, I am always fascinated with how an area confronts and retells its history. In my opinion, Berlin has set a high standard for doing this in a remarkably transparent manner. The city includes memorials to the Jews, homosexuals, the burned books, the politicians who opposed the Nazi Party, and even to the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler. If that were not enough, the Nazi Museum next to the Berlin Wall gives visitors all of the information they would need to understand the rise and fall of that nefarious party and its leaders.

Berlin's attempt to confront its past was on my mind when my family and I visited S-21 in Pnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. S-21 was a former high school that was converted into one of the Khmer Rouge's* most terrifying secret prisons from 1975-8. As religion and education was decried by the new government, doctors, monks, government officials, teachers, students, engineers, and their subsequent families were rounded up here and tortured into producing false confessions of how they were an "enemy" to the state. Classrooms were converted into crude cells, playground bars became terrible torture devices, and children who should have been in school were cruelly beaten and starved. Out of the 20,000 prisoners who entered S-21's doors, only twelve survived to tell the tale. The prisoner's haunting mugshots, rows of skulls behind glass, and the blood residue on the walls bear witness to the terror and horror that should have never occurred.

 Cambodian folklore says that those who die without a proper burial are forced to wander the earth aimlessly, which, understandably, only adds upon the grief of those who have no way of tracking their loved one's bodies who were killed. In light of this belief, the presentation of S-21 was particularly striking, as the prison is virtually the same as it was back in 1979. With the explanations, pictures, and some lone survivors of S-21 who wandered around to answer tourists' questions, the area does seem to serve as a make-shift burial ground to ensure that the world and even the locals do not forget what happened.

                                                                  The prison cells in S-21. The size was probably equal to a third of my bedroom.
In walking the somber hallways of S-21, I was quietly reminded just how many of the world's most brutal leaders think and act in a surprisingly similar fashion. Indeed, Pol Pot carried out an incredibly similar "Great Leap Backward Forward" with massive irrigation and rice production projects, leading to massive starvation and the death of thousands (millions, perhaps?). But our tour guide then pointed out that while Mao and Pol Pot's tactics were similar, they still had remarkably separate views. Mao intended to propel his country toward the future to similar economic grounds as his Western counterparts. Pol Pot, on the other hand, was looking towards the past, desiring to restore Cambodia to the former splendor of its Angkor Empire days. In visiting the magnificent Angkor Wat several days later, it was easy to see how a revolutionary who saw his country ransacked by civil war, desired to restore his country to attain the same kind of respect and glory it once enjoyed a thousand years ago. Hitler too, seemed nostalgic for the old Germanic Empire and desired to restore the "Aryan" nation, as his nation was thrust into poverty post WWI.  

Forty years later, Cambodia still seems to be grappling with Pol Pot's legacy, making it even more obvious as to why the S-21 edifice was desperately needed. I recall how one of our Cambodian tour guides explained how Pol Pot was not actually such a bad guy; he was only trying to take back their territory from Vietnam. The animosity he had toward Vietnam was palpable, but our family exchanged glances at one another, unable to process what he had said.

"Have you been to S-21?" one of my brothers asked him.

He answered that he knew about it. My hope is that he can enter its walls one day and really get it. Fortunately, with S-21 still standing, he is able to do so, in a similar way that the Germans who enter Berlin can understand their painful past. Maybe someday, Mao's mausoleum in Tianneman Square will be torn down to create a space for a museum that explains just how this leader is viewed as responsible for at least 45 million deaths--in the name of progress.

*Khmer Rouge was the name of the political party that came to power after a long Cambodian civil war. The leader of the Khmer Rouge was Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge is estimated to have killed over 3 million people in their quest to produce the most pure socialist regime the world had yet seen.


  1. I taught many Cambodians on my mission in New Zealand from Jan 96 to Dec 1997.