Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes
In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s* security forces and turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21) It is now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes and the public can learn about what happened within the makeshift prison.
*Pol Pot was the leader of the communist Khmer Rouge from 1975 – 1979. They aimed to create a classless society and wanted to get rid of the educated, the wealthy, religious leaders, and former government officials.These people were captured, tortured until they confessed to the crime their captor accused them of and killed.
Over 17,000 people were sent to S-21.
You walk from room to room seeing the iron bed frames, the small bullet boxes used as toilets and the chains.
There are still blood stains on the ceiling.
The atmosphere shudders with the not so long ago horrors of the past.
On the wall near each bed frame is a gory photo of a victim, discovered by two Vietnamese photo journalists in January 1979.
You look again at the bed, this time being able to picture where the body would be. You look at the wooden desk and chains, stomach churning at the thought of the interrogations that happened there.
You walk outside, past a post where victims were hung by their ankles and dunked in to the water, nearly drowning before being brought out and dunked in again. Children used to play there. The warm breeze doesn’t feel right here.
You walk in to different classrooms and see more of the prison cells, each made of dark grey slabs of concrete. It is dismal, even on a guided tour. You cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to be a prisoner here, your world a meter wide.
You arrive at the photo gallery.
The Khmer Rouge were rigorous in keeping records of their brutality, and took a photo of each of their victims. Hundreds of these are now on display.
So many faces starring at you, some of them are 12-years-old, their dark eyes full of unspeakable conflict. The features are so defined. Some expressions are defiant and others confusion as to what the hell they’re doing there. Some had numbers printed on their clothes, others had the number pinned to their bruised, bleeding skin. You can read about the number of prisoners but its seeing those faces, so many faces, that makes it real.
Of the 17,000 people imprisoned here, only seven survived.
The Killing Fields
There is quiet.
You walk around and see enormous scoops taken out of the ground – all of these holes were mass graves.
There are signs describing who was buried there – men, women and children – and how many bodies were found. One of the largest graves had over 400 bodies excavated from it. Rainbows of woven bracelets line the wooden fences around the graves, a sign of respect.
One sign indicates the killing tree. Women would be forced to kneel with their wrists and legs tied up. They were forced to look up as the solider picked up their baby by its legs and smash it against a tree. Or the soldiers would throw the babies in to the air and let them fall on something sharp. The tree where the babies were thrown against is now covered in ribbons as a tribute to the lost lives.
There is a glass case of victims’ clothes. A pair of children’s purple shorts sticks out.
Other glass cases are full of victim’s bones and some are heartbreakingly small.
You can also see bones and teeth in the ground, which still emerge when it floods.
A towering glass case of skulls is in the memorial tower. Some skulls are on eye level and you can stare right in to the sockets. Some are creamy white, others are burnt brown. Some you can still see the teeth.
Carefully place a stick of burning incense and one small white rose to offer a prayer in front of the memorial tower. It doesn’t feel like enough.
It is still so quiet.
Were it not for the tour guide, the only sound would be the birds and the occasional breeze rustling the leaves. The tour guide lost some of his family during the regime and when he talks he sometimes has to stop and look up to the light before continuing. It’s so hard to unearth his brown eyes, to try and understand the horrors that have happened here.
During the Khmer Rouge routine, 1.5 million Cambodians died.
Grief hits. Sudden and unexpected. For the lives lost, the families, this country.