07:19

S21

The building is unremarkable in any developing country:  a school - concrete over three floors with galleries along each floor opening into classrooms. Three buildings, identical, around a courtyard shaded by flowering trees. There is a frame on the edge of the grass that perhaps once held a swing or two; maybe a climbing rope. The sound of the city goes on around it. It is peaceful, but there are no children.

In each of the classrooms of the first building are two objects; a metal bed frame and an ammunition box. There is a large photograph on each wall of what the room looked like in 1979. On each bedstead there is a human being, shackled to the ironwork and partially decomposed, unrecognisable as male or female, who has been tortured to death. 

This is Tuol Sleng, or S21, one of hundreds of torture centres around Cambodia which you could say was the apotheosis of the secular jihad of the terrible twentieth century. Roughly 20,000 passed through this place. Only a handful survived. Some were there for months, sometimes tortured three times a day. Their photo portraits line the walls. Some were connected in some way with the previous regime, others just middle class - doctors, teachers or shopkeepers. Some more were Khmer Rouge themselves, suspected by a paranoid Pol Pot of plotting against him: for these were reserved the lowest circle of hell. The youth of those in the photographs is notable.

They were shackled naked in makeshift cells and fed barely enough to sustain life. The ammunition boxes were the latrines. They were beaten and electrocuted. They had their toe nails ripped out, were burnt with red hot irons, whipped and even flayed alive. The climbing frame was used to hoist victims by their wrists. They were made to eat faeces  and women were raped. If they survived they would be driven in the middle of the night to the killing field on the edge of Phnom Penh where they were battered to death or buried alive. 

Visiting this place is almost unbearable, and yet, in that sun dappled garden, are two of the survivors, with their families, selling their printed stories and eating lunch under the shade of a mimosa tree. I spoke briefly to one. He is about seventy (you see few older people in Cambodia) and he survived because he could mend typewriters: the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records like their bedfellows the Nazis. He says he holds no ill will against his torturers as he would probably have done the same given the choices open to them. 

Despite this claim, one of the things that shook me were the photographs in the first building. These victims must have been worked on even as the Vietnamese liberators were investing Phnom Penh, even as sound of gunfire was heard in the distance. It was one final spasm of cruelty - as if the last opportunity to torture and kill could not be passed over. It is reminiscent of the death throes of the Third Reich when death squads lynched suspected deserters in Berlin even after Hitler had killed himself. What is this urge to nihilistic cruelty?

Nearly a third of the population died under the Khmer Rouge. Our guide in Angkor Wat's mother had ten children before she married his father and had him and his brother. All ten - and her husband - died during those three years. And yet here's the unbelievable bit. Hun Sen, the still prime minister of Cambodia who has been in power since 1985, was a Khmer Rouge commander in the eastern provinces for over two years. He only fled to Vietnam when he realised Pol Pot was about to purge him. This man has held onto power by ruthless murder, torture, intimidation and systemic corruption and, like the Robert Mugabe he resembles, has vowed to stay in power until he drops. 

World leaders, like Obama attending the Asian Summit in Cambodia, still shook his blood-drenched hand just after he responded to the Arab Spring as follows,  "I not only weaken the opposition, I'm going to make them dead ... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage." 

Poor beautiful Cambodia: its smiling and friendly people deserve better than the truly awful governments they have had to suffer under for so long. Sadly, it looks as if they will have do so for some time yet.


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