A row of mature frangipani trees line the main courtyard of S21. Their flowers perfume the breeze and in their shade you get your first glimpse of the buildings of what became a venue for unspeakable horror. Our guide is Keo Lundi. Born in Phnom Penh, he was 15 when the Khmer Rouge took the city. Now a father of two he leads us through the compound with an air of forlorn acceptance. We were stood on the steps of the third building when he told us his story but somehow, when I think of it now, I see him in the shade of that first tree, afternoon sunlight dancing on the white of his shirt.
When the Khmer Rouge took the city, we were happy because we thought it was the end of the war and the fighting. So we were on the streets, cheering them when they came. But three days later they told everyone we must leave. Must get out of the city because soon it would be bombed. Some people if they said, no I don’t want to leave, or no I can’t go because I am sick or no I can’t with my children, the ones who didn’t go, they were taken away and shot. And we were taken away from our homes and put to work in the country, breaking rocks all day with not enough food.
The Khmer Rouge tried to kill me many times indirectly and once directly. I fell from a tree and my shoulder was broken and I couldn’t work breaking and carrying anymore. So they sent me to the island to work at fishing. I don’t see my family for many many weeks. We stay on the island and they stay in the fields. Me and my friend, and older boy from the Base people, we were fishing on the island, catching fish to feed everyone in the camp and we caught a turtle. We already had enough fish for the day, so my friend said, come, we’ll go and eat the turtle. I was from the city, I didn’t know. So I followed him. And we walked into the jungle and made a fire. And we cooked the turtle and we started to eat. But in the fields the Khmer Rouge saw the smoke coming from the jungle. And they came to see. The officer, I didn’t see him coming because he came up behind me. And when he got to us, he leaned over, all friendly and smiling and asks us “What are you doing?” Just like that, smiling. Friendly. “What are you doing?” And I can say nothing. My friend, he say nothing. And officer says, “go on, finish.” And I shake my head. I can’t finish. I say I am full. But my friend, he from the Base people, he knows. He says. “Eat. You don’t eat. You die anyway. Eat now.” So we finish. And then we go with the officer back to the camp. And the whole way there I am crying. We get to the camp and they make us stand in front of the officer in charge and the whole time I am crying and shaking. And the officer, he say me, Keo, why you crying. But I just crying. He ask my friend, why he crying. But my friend, he Base people, he knows. He say nothing. They ask me again, Keo, why you crying. And again. And finally I say, “I want to see my Mom.” They say me again, why you crying? And I say “I sorry, I know I am wrong. I just want see my Mom.” And the officer, he look at me and he say, “This time.” Just like that. And that is all he say. And I know he mean, he choose not to kill me this time. But next time, he will. I don’t know when. But next time he will. Could be any time at all. But the next week the officer, he switches with an officer from Phnom Penh and the new officer, he don’t know about my mistake. In this way, I am lucky. You see all this and I think, Pol Pot he crazy. The killing sure it is crazy, to kill like this but to be so brutal like this. To kill so many with knives and torture. I don’t know why they had to be so brutal.
Keo leaves us in the open courtyard outside the last building. He waves to the two S21 survivors, both elderly men, who sit in the shade selling their bound accounts of the horror they endured to the tour groups that are ferried through the complex. I imagine him going home, eating with his wife and two daughters, sleeping in the city where his ordeal began, and coming back to work in the morning, fresh white shirt, fresh new day, to lead another visitor through the rooms where his countrymen were tortured and slain, past the boards crowded with faces of those taken by an unspeakable evil. His country’s history is his own. And he continues to live it, to bear witness to it, to commemorate those who were lost, every day.
Author’s note: This account is from my memory of the time I spent with Keo. He was not recorded and therefore my recollections may be imperfect but this is my understanding of his story.