I climb the staircase and can imagine the pitter patter of young feet running to class. The joyous exclamations as kids play chase, or race to be the first back to the classroom. I can see their neat uniforms gracing the halls and huddled over desks as they study.
But this place hasn't been a school in a long time. Stepping inside the classroom, the air feels heavy, choking. I don't know if it's the dust in the air from nature's wear on hastily erected brick cells within this old teaching institution, or the weight of souls crushed in its history.
This is S-21, the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School and site of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Here, in what was once a government school, 20 000 lives were excruciatingly removed from this world. Those who died here were tortured slowly, made to suffer through immense terror and pain in order to admit to crimes they had never committed.
It is here on the floors of the crude cells that blood spatters are still evident. The yellow and white checked tiles carry the tattoo of horrors past. Carry a warning to us all of how easily ordinary life can tumble into tortuous anarchy. Of how the world considered Pol Pot a legitimate leader for so long while his people suffered tremendously.
We had come here from the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. The sunny skies and flowering trees betray none of the land's terrible secrets. Only plaques and signs mark spots in the land where thousands met their end. Where, because bullets were expensive, the end was all but swift. Where loud revolutionary songs played to drown our the screams of those who could never understand what had happened to their country. Standing here in the January sun surrounded by tens of others listening to their audio tour, it's hard to fathom just how horrible an end it would have been. The birds chirp under the blaring sun, the trees stand tall and wise to protect us from its rays.
Three million, they say, met a premature end under the Khmer Rouge. Three million only three decades after the end of the Second World War.
Four years ago I visited Mauthausen, a Nazi death camp, on my travels through Europe. The experience haunted me. The souls there seemed trapped in its walls. The air was thick, the fear prickled. The plain concrete held so many stories and none of them were good.
And so I was left wondering today as I was then, how does this happen? How do a small handful of people lead others to commit such heinous crimes? How is it that we quickly can blind ourselves to the suffering of others in order to preserve our own skin? How do schools that once nurtured children become tainted forever by innocent blood shed?
And I have no answers. History repeats itself time and time again. When will we learn?