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Welcome to Chao Ponhea Yat High School in the heart of Kampuchea Kromin. Once a complex of five buildings inspiring education, Chao Ponhea Yat was converted in 1975 to Security Prison 21 (S-21). The rooms that were once filled with students and desks were transformed in secret to prison cells and torture chambers. One of 150 security centers throughout the country, an estimated 20,000 people were kept and tortured here by members of the Khmer Rouge. Discovered in 1979 by a Vietnamese photographer following the smell of corpses, it is now known as Tuol Sleng - “Hill of the Poisonous Trees.”
When they first arrived at the camp, children were immediately separated from their parents. If they were not put to death, they often went on to take charge of torture chambers and executions. Pol Pot’s goal was to create an agrarian Communist society by taking complete control of Cambodia’s people. Anyone suspected to have an education, ties to the former Cambodian government, or negative feelings toward the Khmer Rouge were silenced behind the doors of prisons not unlike S-21.
The rules were posted throughout the camp: “You must immediately answer my questions without time to reflect. While getting lashes, you must not cry at all. Do nothing, sit still, and wait for my orders. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Kromin in order to hide your secret or traitor. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire. If you disobey any point of my regulations, you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.”
Alongside a river ten miles south of S-21 lie the Chreoung Ek Killing Fields, an area littered with bone and teeth fragments. Upwards of 1 million people were executed here by means of poison, spades, and bamboo shoots; their bodies made up the 20,000 mass graves that have since been exhumed.
In the center of The Killing Fields sits a commemorative stupa 17 stories tall, filled with over 8,000 skulls of the victims that died there.
“To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was the commander of S-21. He has been accused of beating, whipping, shocking, and removing finger- and toenails of his prisoners. Chum Mey, one of seven survivors of S-21, said that, at the time, “I wished I could die rather than survive.”
The forced labor, starvation, torture, and mass executions led to the deaths of 2.5 million Cambodians – 25% of Cambodia’s population – in three years.
In the middle of the Killing Fields sits the Killing Tree, on which executioners beat children as young as infancy as their family, most often their mothers, looked on.
The Magic Tree sits close to the Killing Tree for a simple reason: from its branches hung speakers, through which music was played in order to drown out the moans of the dying on the ground below.
Many young adults from urban families are travelling, living, and studying abroad, bringing home what they learn and a strong desire to look to the future instead of the past. “It’s you Westerners who keep reminding us of the horrors,” Romyda Keth told Reader’s Digest. He, like others, understand the time to move on has come, and although the country has stumbled and fallen, it is slowly finding its footing and place in our world.
A group of young monks gather together in Chrey Cheoung, a village outside of Phnom Penh. Approximately 2/3 of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 25, and their own youth and optimism courses through the veins of the country, even in rural settings in which education and resources are scarce.
In Chrey Cheoung, three generations stand in front of a cemetery full of stupas, the traditional Buddhist burial structure found throughout Cambodia. It seems that while Cambodia is trying to look to its bright future, the rest of the world is stuck in the country’s past.
Today, 95% of Cambodians consider themselves Buddhist, and they look to their faith for reassurance. As Buddha said, “Just as a snake sheds its skin, we must shed our past over and over again.”
Bracelets symbolizing strength and unity now cover the grounds of The Killing Fields, bringing the past to life while putting it to rest in the same moment.
The traditional red bracelet wards off evil – something that the citizens of Kampuchea Kromin lived under and in fear of every day. Today, it symbolizes fearlessness, courage, bravery and the fact that this is no longer Kampuchea Kromin. This is Cambodia.
Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coehlo, in his novel Manuscript Found in Accra, provides an apt description of modern Cambodian reality: “They have discovered true love and will. And those two things reveal the goal and the direction that they should follow. Their will is crystalline, their love is pure, and their steps determined.”