Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Hell Frozen Over ...

Tuol Sleng Prison ... codename: S-21 ... Phnom Penh. It’s Saturday morning.

Tuol Sleng was a tranquil school, a hub of education, that was converted to become hell on earth in 1975. The Pol Pot regime tortured and killed all those they took there (approximately 20,000). Only seven people got out alive.

I don’t think I’ve been to a more powerful place. We see photographs of the room we are standing in ... everything is the same except for the dead body in the photograph ... throat slit, fingers cut off. The photographs were taken by the Vietnamese immediately after storming the building in 1979. Other faces stare at me from the black and white ... faces that had to suffer like no one should, before they met their end.

The lady that shows us round explains how she lost her father, a brother and a sister to Pol Pot. How Phnom Penh was evacuated in 1975 and she, as a six year old, walked for two weeks to find safety. She explains that the torturers were largely children. They were brutalised and brainwashed in jungle camps before being sent to do evil upon their fellow people.

We walk the busy streets of a city once deserted ... and people smile ... we travel by tuk tuk ... and people wave. I realise all these people will have fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins or grandparents that died during the regime and the famine afterwards. 2 million died, 1 million fled the country ... out of a 7 million population. That’s the equivalent of 17 million dying in the UK today; and over 8 Million fleeing as refugees. But the smiles and waves have so much more meaning ... displaced people can still find a place for gentleness ... horror and sadness can be overcome ... me moaning about the lack of rungs on the farming ladder feels incredibly pathetic.

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