Row upon row of mugshots, 14,000 people were killed here or shipped to the Killing Fields and killed. Only 7 survived. As a result it was like looking at photos from beyond the grave. Some were as young as 3 or 4, some in their 60’s. There were postmortem photos, photos of people black and blue from beatings, all malnutritioned. A few with hate looking at the camera but the vast majority were crushed, completely desperate without hope and seeming to know what their fate would be.
When we were backpacking through South East Asia, my fiancé and I did our best to keep a daily journal. From time to time I like to flick back through it and I came across the excerpt above from our time in Cambodia. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is the former high school which was used as the notorious S-21 Prison by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. Also referred to as Pol Pot’s secret prison. Today the figures stand at between 17,000 – 20,000 killed with only 12 having survived.
There are few words to describe how it feels to walk around Tuol Sleng. The abhorrent torture and murder, coupled with the barbaric conditions in which prisoners were kept had a very profound effect on us both. I can still remember feeling utterly drained and emotionally shattered after leaving the museum that day. We were stunned into silence upon entering one of the first rooms. Almost bare with dirty yellow walls and a yellow and white chequered floor. There was a bare metal bed frame, shackles and an ammo box. On the wall a horrifically gruesome photograph of what Vietnamese soldiers found upon discovering S-21. The corpses of 14 prisoners were found this way, having been tortured to death shortly before the Vietnamese army had liberated Phnom Penh. Their bodies are buried in the courtyard of the museum.
Outside, a plaque detailed a list of rules that prisoners were to abide by during their incarceration:
- You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
- Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
- Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
- You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
- While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
- Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
- Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
- If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
- If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Nothing can prepare you for the thousands of black and white photographs on display, showing prisoners before and some after torture. At age 24 I wasn’t naive by any stretch but I still couldn’t wrap my head around the unthinkable horror that one human could subject upon another. There were glass cabinets full of clothing and some full of skulls. Other rooms displayed shackles and implements used for torture. Paintings by a former inmate depicted prisoners being tortured. Remarkably, there were ‘No Smiling’ signs throughout the museum. The prison buildings looked formidable with their balconies covered in barbed wire. I found it incredibly difficult to imagine the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School as it must have been before it was turned into a killing machine; the most infamous of over 100 execution centres across Cambodia at the time, averaging a reported 100 deaths a day in early 1977.
We met friends for dinner that evening and initially sat in silence unsure of how to start a jovial conversation. How do you laugh and joke when you’ve just stared in the faces of thousands of murdered people? Some local children broke the tension, arriving by our table to sell books. They seemed to have no concept of their country’s history yet, their innocence written all over their smiling faces and fabulous banter!
The museum is a gritty, brutally detailed memorial, which shows and describes the horrific incarceration, interrogation, torture and execution of thousands of innocent men, woman and children. Nothing here is sugar coated and nor should it be. A trip here is not for the faint hearted but I would highly recommend it if you are travelling to Cambodia. It is an incredibly important piece of Cambodia’s recent history and goes a long way to helping you understand how the country has grown. Millions of Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot’s genocidal rule. Pol Pot died a free man in 1998.
I’ve barely touched on the history here. Some further reading:
Tuol Sleng website.
Pol Pot and his communist rule.
The Khmer Rouge and it’s regime.
Comrade Duch – former Khmer Rouge leader who oversaw the runnings of Tuol Sleng.
New York Times article about Nhem En, the former Tuol Sleng photographer.