What Is It Like to Visit Phnom Penh's Prison Camp: "Tuol Sleng"?
At one time, Tuol Sleng was just an ordinary high school in Phnom Penh. But one day in 1976 that changed, and today Tuol Sleng is a poignant reminder of Cambodia’s recent history. Overnight, Tuol Svay Pray High School became Prison S21 as a consequence of Pol Pot’s infamous genocide and Killing Fields.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located in the capital, Phnom Penh, and although horrific, it is one of the places you should visit in Cambodia. It's a painful reminder of the dangers of certain ideologies that don't allow any dissent.
Tuol Sleng Buildings
As I walked through the gates at Tuol Sleng, the buildings initially looked like any other old high school building. There were five blocks with a grassy area in the middle. But there were subtle and very cynical differences. Almost everything had a double meaning here. In front of me, a large sign proclaimed “the Rules.”
"Do not cry" was just one of many rules in this prison. When Pol Pot declared Year Zero and thousands of people were sent to the countryside, the impact on the country’s professionals and intellectuals was immense. Many people were rounded up and brought to places like S21 for interrogation and torture. The majority never experienced freedom again, as an entire generation was murdered under this brutal regime.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh Cambodia
Torture Jars of Tuol Sleng
In the grassy courtyard, I noticed some stone water containers. At first glance, these looked as though they were there to decorate the place but my guide told me a different story. Above the containers was a structure. These were gallows where people were hung and in some cases positioned upside down so they could drown in the water containers.
This was just the beginning to a visit at Tuol Sleng. There were 14 graves here too. These were the dead people found when the Vietnamese Army invaded in 1978 and these graves serve as a reminder of what went on along with all the other displays.
Political Prisoner Torture
On my left, I walked towards what had once been a block of classrooms. Today it held an iron bedframe and some metal objects used to shackle prisoners. “This is where political prisoners were interrogated,” said my guide, “Sometimes they were beaten. And they were left without food.” I shuddered; trying to imagine what it must have been like imprisoned here and tied to a bed. “They used electric shocks to get information,” the guide continued.
Anyone who was considered a threat to Pol Pot’s regime—such as professional people, intellectuals and even people who wore glasses—were held prisoner, interrogated, and tortured until it was time for them to go to the Killing Fields.
Tuol Sleng is hard to capture in a single sentence and I thought that nothing else could get worse, but in fact, there were even more barbaric facts to learn about this museum.
A school party walked past in silence, seemingly unable to take in what their countrymen had done to each other in one of the 20th century’s worst examples of genocide.
I moved to another block where there were rows upon rows of photographs of people. Each had a number and had died after being interrogated here. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in recording the details of what they did. Some looked really young and it was disturbing to discover that once a man was caught and imprisoned the Khmer Rouge often came for the family at a later date.
Do most people in your country know about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot?
Rows of Faces
Walking along the silent rows of faces was a somber experience. There seemed to be hundreds of people that once had a name but had now become a number in the regime’s killing machine. Each face that peered out seemed fatigued and resigned to their fate with vacant haunting eyes.
The more I looked, the more I wanted to know about their backgrounds and why they had ended up in S21. One face, in particular, stood out from the crowd. This was an Australian who had also been imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (not the one in the picture). Several New Zealanders and Australians lost their lives under Pol Pot’s regime.
Small Prisoner Cells
I continued upstairs to the prison cells where women were incarcerated in tiny cells, often chained to the floor. With barely any food and in intense heat they were kept within the marked spaces that were uncomfortably and painfully narrow.
Outside there was barbed wire all along the balconies. Rusted with age, it appeared a reminder of what had gone before.
“I guess that was to keep prisoners in this area.” I enquired.
“Well it was put here to stop people committing suicide,” responded my guide, “They wouldn’t even let them end this existence themselves.”
So even the barbed wire had a story to tell at Tuol Sleng.
There was another block to view. This also had photos of people staring out at the visitors; people who had met their end here in appalling circumstances. But there was more. In this room, there were paintings of the executioners and torturers at work.
The Khmer Rouge were so brutal and so sure of themselves that they had these atrocities captured in an art form. A painting of a baby being tossed in the air and shot at by the Khmer Rouge was particularly appalling. And another one depicted waterboarding which was a favored torture method used here.
Understanding Cambodia’s Gruesome Past
The sights got even more gruesome as I came to a cabinet filled with skulls. A map of Cambodia had been made using skulls and was shown displayed on the wall. For me, it was the brazen way that art had been used to capture the misery of these poor people that upset me the most.
Tuol Sleng is an essential part of seeing Cambodia and understanding the country and its past. It is, however a deeply upsetting and emotional place to visit. And what was very interesting is that as the Khmer Rouge regime became more brutal the executioners turned on each other. Those that began the killing were in turn killed by the next generation of killers. At its height, S21 was murdering around 100 people a day.
Liberation by The Vietnamese Army
As I left Tuol Sleng, there was one final surprise and an uplifting moment. When the Vietnamese Army invaded in 1978, they found just 7 people alive in Tuol Sleng prison. Aged 84, Mr. Chum Mey spends his time educating people who pass through the gates and has written a book about his experiences.
He was imprisoned because the Khmer Rouge wrongly believed he had been working with the CIA. He was tortured with electric shocks and beaten. But in a twist of fate, the Khmer Rouge found a use for him. Chum Mey was able to fix typewriters, and the regime needed to record names, numbers and other facts in their meticulous logs. That was how he survived.
After visiting Tuol Sleng, it is important to reflect on the experience and to take some time to do something pleasant. This is a deeply upsetting place to visit but one that is so important to remember in the hope that it does not happen again.
© 2019 Sam Shepards