One of the most shocking and depressing places I have ever visited was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Pehn. The site, a former high school, is filled with horror stories of torture and death, mutilation and torture. This school was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. What once housed hundreds of eager students became a place where thousands would die.
In August 1975 the Khmer Rouge renamed the complex “Security Prison 21” and construction began to adapt the school into a prison. The buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire which you can still see today. The classrooms were converted into tiny prisons and even torture chambers for political prisoners. All the windows were covered with iron bars and also barbed wire to prevent the political prisoners from escaping.
Looking at this building it is impossible to imagine that this was once a school filled with laughing children. As you walk into the complex you can feel the sorrow and sadness that has seeped into its foundations. The building resonates with the evil acts and atrocities committed here.
From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned and murdered at Tuol Sleng. The worst part is that these people did nothing to deserve such treatment. Their only crime was not liking the current government or just knowing someone who was against the government.
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. As I walked through the prison these photographs were displayed and tells the story of thousands of innocent lives lost. Some of these photos are of children, what on earth could they have done wrong?
After being photographed the prisoners were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Such inhumane treatment.
Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor, these shackles are still there just as the Khmer Rouge left them. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets and were forbidden to talk to each other. That must have been horrific, not being able to console or just support each other while you are in this hell.
When prisoners were first brought to Tuol Sleng, they were made aware of ten rules that they were to follow during their incarceration. What follows is what is posted today at the Tuol Sleng Museum. The imperfect grammar is a result of faulty translation from the original Khmer:
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. 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.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. Most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks and engineers.
During torture and at the end of their long torture just before they were taken away to be killed, they were photographed again. Cant believe they kept such detailed account of these atrocities. It is as if they were proud of it and wanted to be able to prove what they did to these poor people.
While walking through the rooms where these photos are displayed I couldn’t help but recognize some of these people from their arrival photos. It was very disturbing and the cruelty that humans can inflict on each other sickened me.
In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army and reopened by the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1980, as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Cambodian people are actually very friendly and hospital with an easy smile, which is one of the things that made this trip to S21 so haunting. It is hard to reconcile that a group could do such horrific things to anyone, much less their own people. You wouldn’t expect this from a civilized society.