Book response 4 “voices from s-21” by David Chandler


“Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison” by David Chandler was an academic and disturbing look into one of the most grotesque institutions of this century, on par with other similar institutions: the Holocaust concentration camps, the Russian Show Trials and the “reeducation campaigns” in the ’40s in China. Covering the history and discovery of the prison, Chandler takes us deep into the bowels of this former high school in Phnom Penh, introducing us to the creators, guards, torturers, prisoners, and survivors. Run by former schoolteachers, S-21, otherwise known as santebal (“a Khmer compound term that combined the words santisuk (security) and nokorbal (police)” (Chandler 3)) was an interrogation and torture facility where men, women, and children were locked up, starved, beaten, pitted against one another, and eventually executed in the killing field behind what was formerly the primary school also situated on the high school grounds. The people who worked at the prison were generally young men from lower class income brackets. Chandler draws a parallel with Mao’s China–the heads of the Khmer Rouge and of S-21 preferred workers with little education: “in Mao’s phrase, ‘poor and blank’ to those corrupted by capitalism or extensive schooling (Chandler 32).” The prison’s maximum number was around 1,500 prisoners at one time, with a varying number being taken for interrogation and others taken directly to the killing field for execution.

The prison had a strict regimen of documentation. When prisoners were brought through the gates, pictures were taken, names, ages, and places of birth written down, and prisoners went through extensive questioning before they were finally placed in cells ranging from solitary (for the most important prisoners) to small cells crowded with upwards of 25 people. People were brought to santebal for a multitude of reasons: someone had named them in a confession, they had been picked up for suspicious behavior in zones throughout the country, or because they were suspected as being enemies and against the “Organization.” There were also many cases of prisoners brought in without any real explanation or reason. When two Vietnamese photojournalists first discovered the prison on January 8, 1979 they found rooms stacked to the brim with documentation about the prison itself, the workers, the guards, the prisoners, and the executions. They found recently dead bodies and blood on the ground, and hastily emptied rooms. In the documents found, and others later handed over to the Cambodian Genocide Program (headed by Yale), extensive notes were taken down during each interrogation session. Why was it that such lengthy reports were kept long after the prisoners’ executions? Chandler talks at length through several chapters about the reasons the operators of S-21 might have had for keeping such meticulous documentation of its torture facility. Ultimately, documents are still being discovered and extensive research and psychological work continues to be done. In the documents discovered were extensive examples and descriptions of the torture techniques used in the prison. Examples of such are beatings (stick, hand, electrical wire), burning, water tortures, being jabbed with a needle, paying homage to different parts of the room, and suffocation with a plastic bag, among others. Not only did the workers at S-21 explain these torture methods, they also took hundreds of photographs of the mutilated bodies (before and after death).

Out of the 14,000+ men, women, and children held at santebal throughout its three years of operations, a mere twelve individuals managed to escape. Only seven of them have come forward with their story. After the prison was discovered in early January of 1979, the Vietnamese hurriedly put the place back together into a makeshift museum that started seeing visitors as early as March of the same year. A survivor of S-21, Ung Pech, was the director of the prison when it reopened (as a museum) in 1980. If one were to visit the prison today they would see mugshots enlarged on the walls, cells filled with the torture devices found in the prison, the killing field displaying thousands of skulls, and stacks and stacks of documentation. They would also be able to read memories from the few survivors of the prison.

Chandler’s book brings the reader a very detailed, descriptive look behind the walls of S-21. As I read through his reports of the prison and his documentation, I was taken aback again and again by the intense amount of cruelty the Khmer Rouge had and displayed for their own people. I find myself wondering about the possibility of this kind of behavior in the world today. Throughout the text Chandler makes connections between various other torture facilities and genocides across the globe and throughout history. For me, perhaps because I spent a short amount of time in Cambodia and because I have read two first hand accounts of the war there, it strikes me as much more real and immediate than others I have heard or read about. Only in 2006 was Duch, the head of S-21, captured, tried, and put in prison. Only a few days ago the trial for Brother Number Two (among other higher ups in the Khmer Rouge) began in Phnom Penh. This “history” of war and torture is very much a part of Cambodian’s lives and should be more recognized throughout the world. Where Luong Ung’s book “First They Killed My Father” brought me into the body and experience of a young girl who underwent the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and survived to tell her story, David Chandler’s book got down to the nitty gritty of the reality, reasoning and creation of a hellhole such as santebal. Having the balance between a memoir and a non-fiction academic look at the regime and prison helped me take my first steps in understanding this time of unrest and genocide in Cambodia. Reading (in Chandler’s book) about the psychology behind those who created a place of such extreme pain and death was very interesting and leaves me wanting to keep learning and discovering as much as I can about this time in very recent history.

A lot of my current readings on Cambodia remind me of other extreme oppressive forces in the Buddhist countries of Tibet and Burma. In a book I just recently finished, “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him, also about the Khmer Rouge, I noticed a few references to praying to Buddha to save them from all the death and destruction they were dealing with. The main character, Chanrithy, often says that Cambodia was once a very Buddhist country, but that the people felt like Buddha had abandoned them with the installment of the Khmer Rouge. In Tibet and Burma, you see massive amounts of peaceful protest happening not only by the common people, but by Buddhist monks as well. Buddhism and the Dalai Lama preach non-violence and yet the heads of all three of these countries (Tibet/China, Burma, and Cambodia) have inflicted upon their people decades of oppressive, militant destruction. It is interesting, and mystifying to me, that these countries still consider themselves Buddhist, for it seems to me, how they go about responding to the problems in their countries, is anything but Buddhist. I suppose you see this extreme in other religions as well though: with Islamic fundamentalists and Christians too. What people will do in the name of their religion astounds me. And yet, the Khmer Rouge wasn’t Buddhist, even though the people it killed and destroyed were. The whole situation leaves much to contemplate, and like I said earlier, I look forward to reading more on these subjects and increasing my awareness.

Book response 3 “Taking the Leap”


Haley Kemper
Book response #3
29 November 2011

“Taking the Leap” by Pema Chodron was a book with a short but deep message about breaking free from the habits that guide our every action, and reaction. Chodron opens her book with a comparison between our hearts and that of two wolves: the mean, negative wolf and the wolf of loving kidness. She tells us that it is entirely up to us to decide which wolf to feed. When we are having a particularly hard time, perhaps we just broke our computer, or found out we got scammed in something, our natural response, our natural habit is to then nourish that anger and/or sadness with more of the same emotion. We may lash out at friends and loved ones, or do ourselves bodily harm, simply because this is what has been bred into us for so long. Human beings have been programmed to react in certain ways to the joys and obstacles that they face. When we find out we got an ‘A’ on a paper we want to go out and celebrate, but when we get an ‘F’ we want to mope around, blame ourselves or someone else, etc. Pema Chodron uses this book as a jumping off point for how to break out of these habits.

Chodron asks us to each look deeply within ourselves and beome more in touch with three natural states: natural openness, natural warmness and natural intelligence. We all have the ability to interrupt old habits, like snapping at a family member when we are angry about something, it is simply up to us to stop and recognize what we are doing or are about to do and take a moment to realie that we don’t HAVE to react that way. We all know how great it feels to treat someone kindly, to reach out to them and do something nice for them, and we can acknowledge that they have the ability to do the same. Now, if we think like this, we should also be aware that each and every person has the ability to react negatively, to yell, or be rude, just like we do! But like us, they also are able to break free of those habits. Most of us have gotten so good at feeding into our negative habits (we always react the same way when someone puts us down for example) that the nasty wolf within us is constantly being fuelded, but the positive wolf is simply sitting there waiting to be fed. Pema Chodron asks us to try and be more in touch with how we react. To take a step back and look at how we would LIKE to react and then decide what the best measure is to respond with. If we are able to take three deep breaths before we yell back at soeone who is yelling at us, perhaps then we will be able to look at the situation and instead of feeding that mean wolf, instead feed the other, and respond to that person with understanding and loving kindness.

Chodron does not say that all of this will be easy. She admits that it is a very very difficult process that has taken her decades and that she continually works on! Even if we are able to step back and change our way of response ONCE in a day, she encourages us to be content with that, for it is the breaking of a habit nonetheless.

Throughout the text Chodron also discusses impermanence as a basis for understanding ourselves. Nothing is permanent on this earth, not the trees in the forest, the computer we sit at, or our emotions/thoughts/responses to our environments. If you know someone very well, like a brother or sister, you will know when they aren’t feeling well by the changes in their attitude. The same goes for ourselves. One minute we are happy, the next we are upset. We change constantly and ALWAYS have the ability to catch ourselves before we do or say something that we will regret or will make us feel upset, guilty, angry, etc.

A concept that Pema uses in the book is one taught to her by her Tibetan teacher. It is that of shenpa, or the concept of getting ‘hooked’ by something. She uses the example of when someone says something mean about us. We are hooked by their words and get all worked up. We have feelings of anger, hurt, and sadness and we are of the habit of lashing back out at that person or responding negatively. Shenpa is that which keeps us in the cycle of our old habits…and we must learn to break free. Shenpa is the charge behind emotions, it is pre-emotion. When words are fueled by or triggered by shenpa they (often) turn into negative, hate words. Pema says that the only way to get rid of shenpa is to first learn to be with it. To sit and acknowledge that you have been “hooked”. To take a few short minutes to breathe and get to the root of your anger, sadness or other emotion. Only by understanding where these feelings of shenpa come from, will we then be able to set them aside, move past them. She gives us three steps for breaking free of shenpa and of our habits. Step one is awknowledging our feelings/emotions. Step two is taking three breaths and looking at these feelings. Just BEING with them. Step three then is to move past them, to choose a different reaction to the shenpa. To realize that they really aren’t that important, that there are much more important things in your life to put your energies towards. Simply move these emotions aside once you have accepted that they exist.

For me, reading this book came at the perfect time as I am starting to look back at my trip and work this quater and prepare to write my self evaluation. I think there was a lot of shenpa in me and in my work, mostly concerning my traveling with Kyle. Before I even read this book, I took it upon myself to practice patience and understanding, which in a way, is part of the three steps that Chodron put forth in her book. While I would occasionaly break from habit in my responses to him, for the most part shenpa ruled, as did my habits. So I broke off and traveled on my own and now after reading this book have a much better idea of what it was (and still is) within me that drove me to act around him the way I did. Giving words to the way we feel, and finding ways to deal with our emotions (both negative and positive) is always empowering…to know that there are others out there that experience the same feelings as we do, and that there are ways to end the kinds of behaviour we do not appreciate within ourselves.

bayon (style 7: shape poetry)


faces peer
down from high
above, their wide
noses and full bodied
lips smile as they survey
their lands. 106 faces of a
king long dead, centuries past,
watch as we come and go, snap photos
and run our fingers along their eyes, and
place a stick of incense at the feet (all that is
left) of an old carved Buddha, deep in the dark
recesses of the temple chambers. apsaras dance
along the walls and many headed serpents slither
along the stairs, elephants clutch lotus blossoms in
their trunks, and monks glide through passageways
and down stone steps that lead from one complex to
the many others that dot this ancient and holy city,
tucked away in the grasping vines of the jungle until
one day discovered by the curious eyes of a frenchman
and now open and welcoming to all the curious eyes of
the world, to be appreciated and shared by you and I.

“first they killed my father” a tribute to leong ung’s book by the same title and her father (type 6: elegy)


i sit on the front steps of our small hut, looking
down the road for pa. i haven’t moved in two
days. my black, now faded gray pajamas that
the khmer soldiers gave me, stick to my back
and my stomach pokes out funny in front of me.
my arms and legs are just bones now, but my
stomach and feet are all bloated. i have forgotten
my hunger since the soldiers took pa away.
they told me that he would be back the next morning.
but he wasn’t.
and so i sit here and wait. ma, geak, and kim
are all out in the fields working for the angkar,
but i told them i was sick today. the camp leader
told me if i wanted to be lazy and stay home then
i wouldn’t get my food ration today. kim yelled at
me later because they could have eaten
my rice. but i just sat on the steps.

i am six years old.

ma cried all last night in her corner. she held geak
close to her and wept for pa. i don’t know how she
will survive here without him. pa was the strong one.
he always knew what to do. i have heard from other
people in the camp about what happens to the men
and women they take away. i know about the torture
the khmer rouge uses. as i sit i imagine a huge fat khmer
rouge soldier bringing down a hammer onto pa’s head.
i imagine them making pa watch as they beat and kill many
other men before they come for pa. i imagine pa
speaking to me. and i speak back. he tells me that he loves
me. he tells me that he will always be with me. pa worked
for the old government, so i know the soldiers wanted him
bad. i hope they killed him quickly. i hope he was not
tortured and then left in the sun for the birds and bugs to
eat while he slowly died. i know this happens because
it happened to our neighbor’s father a month ago. they
found his body one night when they went out searching
for him. the soldiers told them that their father would
be back the next morning too.

this is angkor country (style 4: idyll)


the eucalyptus tower high
above the shaded temples far below.
their leaves hang still, in the absence
of breeze, and the rice paddies in the
distance glisten in the bright noonday
sun. a young boy pedals his rusted
old bike slowly along the dusty country
lane, his backpack resting upon a small hunched
frame, he whistles as he heads home for lunch.
his mother is behind their stilted house,
slapping the recently washed clothes against
a rock, beating the dirt out of them. water buffalo
bray in the muddy pits beyond, rolling in the
wetness they coat their warm, coarse bodies in the
cool earth, long strands of elephants grass
hanging from black lips.
life goes on for the men and women of angkor,
they came and settled hundreds of years ago,
around the temples that sit, silent guardians,
watching over the land with each sunrise and sunset.
their red and gray stones cracking and
crumbling, tree roots seeping into nooks
and crannies, the quiet country life continues,
the seasons come and go, the rice is harvested,
and the temples sit, quietly watching life pass by below.

A Night of Light november 11, 2011


red and green sparks shot forth

from the cylindrical cardboard wands,

like the dueling beams of wizard’s spells,

the firecrackers shot back and forth

across the street between the two men,

who in a fit of childlike laughter,

continued to wage a showy battle

beneath a sky sparkling with the light

of a thousand flaming lanterns.

river and sky mirrored one another,

the candles of a million floating krathong,

unceremoniously snuffed out by small

hands searching for a five baht coin,

and the rice paper lanterns above

threatening to light each leafy branch

they bump as they journey

up. up. up.