It has been many years since I visited Cambodia and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. But it still haunts me to this day. Be warned that some readers may find this post disturbing.
Arriving at the former high school on a beautiful sunny day, it is difficult to believe the atrocities that happened on these very grounds in the mid 1970s.
At a first glance it looks very much like the school I attended in Kuala Lumpur and you can almost imagine the children running about on the grass at recess. Unfortunately the walls of these buildings remember a different story..
In 1976 the Khmer Rouge transformed this school to a prison which went by the name Security Prison 21 (S-21).
All prisoners were photographed. Shockingly you will see photographs of children and mothers with their babies among them. It is said that around 20 000 people (mostly Cambodians) were held, tortured, interrogated and executed. Prisoners were from all walks of life from academics to monks. Even though every single prisoner was photographed, the data with their personal details was lost, so most remain anonymous.
The classrooms were transformed into prison cells and prisoners attached to the walls with chains. Prisoners were forced to “confess” and name their neighbours and family members in the process. The methods used were monstrous. Most prisoners were innocent to the charges they were accused of.
The numbers on the wall were to indicate each prisoners place. You can imagine how the prisoners slept here without any personal space whatsoever. There were no blankets or mattresses, just the hard floor. Talking was forbidden.
The barbed wire was in place to ensure the prisoners would not jump down from the top floors and commit suicide.
There were many rules, for example: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all” or “Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders”.
Underneath you can see a wooden frame used for gymnastic practice when the place was a school. The Khmer Rouge converted it into an instrument for interrogation. Prisoners were lifted with cables to hang upside down until they lost consciousness. Once this happened their heads were dipped in fertiliser filled water to regain consciousness to be able to continue the inquisition.
Almost all prisoners ended up dead. Most of the deaths were excruciating, as they were a result of the barbaric abuse used to get forced confessions out of the prisoners. It is said that only twelve survived.
A visit to Tuol Sleng will leave you empty and heartbroken. You will be sickened that man can do such things. However, one should visit to pay respects to the Cambodian people who had to endure this hell. It goes without saying that a genocide museum is not a place for children.