Two schools represent distinction with a big difference

IMG_5604The complex in the photo above was called S-21 by the Khmer Rouge.  Today it is known variously as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia.

The facility had been converted from a public high school to an incomprehensibly brutal prison in 1975-79, when up to 2 million Cambodians died.  Of the 14,000 ordinary citizens believed to have been incarcerated there, only seven survived the starvation, inhuman living conditions, torture and outright execution.

Toul Sleng is a 10-15-minute walk from my home, and I have occasion to pass by regularly.  It is wholly visible from the roof of my 15-story building.  Seeing it gives me pause, even chills, under a punishing sun.  You can find many more photos here of the interior, exterior and victims.

It was a high school, like so many public schools that I go by on virtually a daily basis.  They are of the prison’s era, and each of them brings me up short without fail.  One such school, pictured below, which has the same color as a side of Toul Sleng, is another five minutes west from my apartment and just beyond Toul Sleng by three or four blocks.  Another high schools, which is half a dozen blocks south of my corner, looks much the same.

IMG_5602Call me judgmental, but I happen to believe that no tourist should come to this country to see Angkor Wat or the Royal Palace without bearing witness to the terrors that citizen inflicted upon ordinary citizen in Pol Pot’s Cambodia.  A whole generation of artists, performers, intellectuals and ordinary folks who had acquired an education was nearly obliterated.


The north wing of Toul Sleng. A narrow alley behind the corner at right is lined with crude housing along the rear of the former school.  (The rear section is visible beyond the monument in the top photo.)  Given widespread believe in ghosts, that’s an odd place to live, but poverty forces the choice.

What I write in this post cannot be news to you.  I hope that the genocide here — as in the former Armenia, Germany and Syria, among others — never will be news to anyone in the years, decades and centuries to come.  There are important lessons to be learned.

Toul Sleng, as well as the killing fields on Phnom Penh’s outskirts, are depressing indeed.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be mandatory sites for tourists to visit.  In my immutable opinion, the rest of the world has a moral obligation to keep alive the memory of all those innocents who suffered and died under the Khmer Rouge.



4 thoughts on “Two schools represent distinction with a big difference

  1. My daughter (adopted) Tevi family squatted in the unused electrical shack on the edge of the Toul Slang grounds. She and her 7 siblings lived there with her mom until baby Tevi was given to an orhphange, her mother dying just weeks later. In 2014 I returned to Toul Slang and there found Tevi’s biological family. Toul Slang is a terrible place, but for us it also held the key to family. PS Tevi means Angel of Budha.


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