The world's most horrific high school

05 Apr 2009

It was once the Tuol Svay High School, an ordinary school on a pleasant site in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. But under the notorious regime of Pol Pot it became the Tuol Sleng prison or 'Security Prison-21', S-21 for short.

The prison's commander was Comrade Duch who, ironically, was a former mathematics teacher. This week he finally stood before the UN-sponsored court, which is holding the first trials of members of Pol Pot's regime who are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On the day the trial opened, I visited S-21. From the outside it still looks like an ordinary, if rather shabby, high school. Its three-storey buildings consist of a single-row of classrooms, joined by a long corridor running along the verandah. Then you notice the barbed wire which is still strung along the tops of the perimeter walls. Once you get inside any remnants of normality are shredded by the sheer horror of what happened here between 1975 and 1979. An estimated 12,000 people were taken to the prison. Only 12 are known to have survived. The rest  were brutally and hideously tortured and interrogated. Then they were carted away to the nearby 'killing fields' to be despatched, usually with a blow to the back of the head with an iron bar or rifle-butt, into pits they had been forced to dig for themselves.

Their 'crimes'? Usually nothing more than being educated, or being teachers or civil servants, being middle-class, or just being wearers of spectacles. Or being related to any of the former. The torture was basic but brutal: electric shock, beatings, water-ducking. Few had anything to divulge except the names of other innocents who, in turn, would be hauled to the torture cells. My guide to S-21 was a young man called Sarem. He quietly told me his own family's story.

He was born in 1973 just outside Phnom Penh, so was just two year's old when Pol Pot came to power. His father was a civil servant in the Ministry of Transport and his mother was a teacher. He was the youngest of several children. Because of his age, most of his knowledge of the Pol Pot era is from the memories of his father and his siblings. He never really knew his mother. As a teacher she was one of the estimated 1.7 million to die or disappear.

The first in Sarem's family to be affected was his uncle, his father's brother, who had been an army officer under the previous government. When it was clear that Pol Pot's troops were triumphant, like all other soldiers, Sarem's uncle fled back to his home village, destroying all traces of his army uniform. But he was given away by an informer (the Pol Pot regime used a  reign of terror to create a network of informers). The punishment was terrible. He was tied together with his wife and children. Then a grenade was thrown amongst them, obliterating them all.

For a while, Sarem's immediate family survived, while Pol Pot terrorised the country, sending all city-dwellers out into the country and forcing them into hard labour on starvation rations (for a chilling, but superbly written, account of this read 'Stay Alive, My Son' by Pin Yathay, the extraordinary tale of the sole survivor from a large, extended family, and one of the most moving books I have read). With a dreadful inevitability, though, Sarem's mother was betrayed, probably by a former teaching colleague under torture. She was taken away to the 'killing fields'. Sarem doesn't even know for sure in which location his mother was murdered, although he believes it was one of two possible sites.

Meanwhile his father was sent to work in the fields and breaking rocks in a quarry. He is now in his 70's, still alive but very bent over as a legacy of his four years hard labour. Sarem's sister, who was 7, was sent for 're-education' where she was told she was not her parents' child, but the child of the state. Sarem himsef was looked after during the day, while his father worked, by the old women of the village, along with about 200 other children. They ate little more than rice porridge. By 1979, only about 60 of them survived.

Meanwhile Sarem's 12 year-old brother was sent away to work in a distant area, near the Thai border. The family had been scattered and the mother was dead. The children brain-washed and under-nourished. In 1979, when the Vietnamese crossed the border to drive out Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, Sarem and his father returned to their old house. But someone had already occupied it. Fortunately, they agreed to leave (there was no shortage of vacant houses and not enough survivors to fill them) so Sarem was able to return to his old home.

Some time later, to their surprise and joy, his brother, who had somehow survived the work camps, returned on the back of a Vietnamese army truck. Sarem was now almost 7, so made a late start to his schooling. With no mother, and a very ill father, he had to work to pay his school fees (schools ran only for half-day sessions and they were not free). He would wander the streets collecting old glass and plastic bottles, and cardboard, to be recycled for a small fee. In a week he could earn about $4 dollars (American).

He did this for seven years. The effort paid off. His good English helped him to get a coveted job as a tourist guide. But nothing will bring back the mother he lost when he was just two years old nor will it bring back his father's once straight back which was bent over by four years of unremitting toil and starvation. Sarem's story is not unusual. Just about everyone in Cambodia was touched by the appalling cruelty and stupidity of the Pol Pot regime. In the late 1970s, the world knew (and seemingly cared) little about what was happening.  World leaders in the USA, China, the Soviet Union and Europe were more concerned with managing their power blocs than the countries that had been crushed in strategic global politics.

Today the UN war crimes trial has made a start to bring the perpetrators to justice. Pol Pot, who died in the jungle, never stood trial. But there is a real risk the trial will not be completed. The money is running out. The Cambodian government, led by a former Khmer Rouge commander, has reportedly been obstructive and is said to be happy to see the trial collapse. For the ordinary people of Cambodia, who suffered so much, and who still mourn their dead mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, the rest of the world should make sure this trial does run its full course.

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