In the center of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng is located, a former highschool consisting of four large buildings. In May of 1976, the Khmer Rouge established S-21 here, or Security Office 21. Although it was the most secret of offices of the Khmer Rouge, people living in close proximity to the former highschool soon knew what its function was, from the screams and the stench of death.
Then the Khmer Rouge’s premier prison and interrogation facility, it is now a genocide museum and monument for the victims. Around 18,000 people, who were deemed enemies of Democratic Kampuchea, the new name the Khmer Rouge had given to the country, were imprisoned, tortured and executed here. Of the eighteen thousand, only seven people survived.
The classrooms were converted into torture chambers or into rows of tiny holding cells, where the prisoners were shackled with chains fixed to the walls or the concrete floors. There were also mass holding cells, where the prisoners had one or both their legs shackled to the now infamous iron bars, that are also on display in the museum.
Not unlike the Nazi regime during World War II, the leadership of S-21 documented and photographed every prisoner that was brought in. The photographs are now on display, thousands of them, and are a testament to the madness and the indiscriminate killings of the Khmer Rouge. Men, boys, women, girls, babies. Their faces expressionless, as if they had resigned to their horrible fate, or frozen in fear. Women tightly holding their newborns, before their babies were taken away from them, and the women raped.
The leadership of S-21 had indoctrinated children to work as exceptionally cruel guards in the facility. After months of torture, where one would confess to basically anything the guards would accuse them of, the victims were taken away. If they hadn’t already succumbed during torture, they were executed at one of the many Killing Fields, scattered around the country.
The most infamous of these Killing Fields is the large area near the village of Choeng Ek, located just outside of Phnom Penh. A memorial stupa has been built here, containing the skulls, bones and clothing of the thousands of victims, their bodies dug up from the 88 mass graves in this area. Now large empty pits, there are signs indicating how many bodies had been found, and descriptions of the utterly horrible way they died.
If it were not for the sepia colour, it seems that the photographs of the victims at Tuol Sleng could have been taken a week ago. Indeed, it is chilling to realise that this all took place under 30 years ago, exactly 30 years after the world promised at the sight of Nazi destruction camps, never to let this happen again. In fact, the Khmer Rouge received western support and even recognition through a seat in the UN General Assembly.
Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in April of 1998, forever robbing Cambodians of some form of justice. Only one month ago, the green light was given by the UN to set up a special tribunal to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who now live a quiet life in the small town of Pailin, close to the Thai border.
Visiting Tuol Sleng and Choeng Ek is, however horrible and depressing, a necessity to get a true impression of the events that took place here not that long ago. But I was glad to soon be able to see the other side of Cambodia’s history: it’s unequalled achievements in arts and architecture at Angkor, near the town of Siem Reap.
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