Discovering the horrors of the The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21), Phnom Penh

After a morning spent at the killing fields we were feeling completely depressed and emotionally drained, but we knew that wasn’t all we had to see that day and decided to power through and make a visit to the Tuol Sleung Prison which means ‘Hill of the poisonous trees’ (nicknamed S21 – Security Prison 21) and is where the victims were first taken to be tortured and interrogated before being executed or brought to the fields when they eventually ran out of burial space. They would usually be held here for 2-3 months before that happened. It was one of at least 150 execution centres in the country and as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed there. Before Pol Pot came into power it was a school but education was quickly banned and it was turned into a prison. I warn you, again, this post might be a bit disturbing and contain some graphic images.

The gates at S21

The gates at S21

I had found it difficult enough to think that at the killing fields I was stood in the same spot as where years ago people had been violently massacred, but I found the prison even harder to deal with. I just couldn’t even comprehend the amount of pain and torture that had gone on in the rooms I was casually walking through with a camera.

S21 building A

S21 building A

We began with a tour of the interrogation rooms. These were small concrete rooms with a metal bed frame and chains where the victim would have been tied and then beaten for hours on end until they either confessed or were killed. The walls in each room were lined with what I thought were paintings of what was thought to have gone on there. I soon realised they were actually photographs. Luckily they were quite blurry as I’m not sure how well I could have taken a crisp and clear photo of someone with their brains bashed in.

One of the photograph's lining the walls of the rooms

One of the photograph’s lining the walls of the rooms

As we walked through the hallways their was an eerie air of silence, just as there had been at the killing fields. A mark of respect or maybe just an inability for everyone to take in what they were seeing. For me it was a bit of both.

Interrogation room

Interrogation room

shackle and torture device

shackle and torture device

In front of this building was a plaque with the rules the prisoners were expected to follow. The most disturbing of which being ‘while getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all’. I can’t even begin to imagine the horror that must have taken place there, but this was as close as I would ever get. You can read about these things online and in books all you like but nothing will prepare you for actually stepping foot in the place where they happened.

Rules

Rules

Dotted around the prison were torture devices such as this one, where they used to hang the prisoners upside down until they passed out, at which stage they would dunk them in the dirty water in the bowls below to revive them over and over again.

Pretty tree in contrast to the interrogation building and torture device

Pretty tree in contrast to the interrogation building and torture device

The next stop were several rooms displaying photographs of the victims themselves. I was deeply saddened looking at these – you could see the pain in their eyes – they knew what was coming. Some of the people in the picture were beautiful children as young as 3 years old and some were women holding their babies. It was unbelievable.

These photos actually broke my heart a little bit

These photos actually broke my heart a little bit

walls and walls of photos

walls and walls of photos

I can't get my head around why this child was there

I can’t get my head around why this child was there

Amongst these photos were probably the most disturbing thing I saw that day – pictures of victims during or after torture. They looked like skeletons and I couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive. The prisoners received four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day so it’s not surprising. I felt physically sick looking at them and so I’m not going to put them up here. A few of the information boards about Pol Pot and his chain of command had been scratched out, I can’t say I was surprised.

Scratched out faces

Scratched out faces

We then moved onto a building which held the tiny prison cells that would hold the victims before they were taken to be interrogated. There was barely room for them to lie on the floor. As I walked through the corridors I thought about what pain and suffering they must have been through as I stared at the shackles lining the floor. Jess and I couldn’t believe it when we saw an American couple pose for a happy photo in front of the rooms – why would you want to take a photo like that there?

cells

cells

We entered our last room at about 3pm and began to read some extremely graphic survivors stories. I won’t even tell you the kind of things they talked about as it was unreal – like something out of a horror film. At this stage Jess and I decided we couldn’t stay there for much longer – that after a continuous 5 hours of exploring the killing fields and the prison we had had enough for the day.

individual cell - there was barely enough space to lie on the floor

individual cell – there was barely enough space to lie on the floor

I left despising Pol Pot. How could one man be so evil as to be responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1 to 3 million people? It’s unbelievable that anyone could be so sick and twisted and I wondered what had ever happened to him to make him that way. Could you blame his parents or are some people just born sadistic and evil?

In 1979, after the Cambodian-Vietnamese war, the Khmer Rouge government collapsed but they clung to power until 1997, operating near the Thailand/Cambodia border. Unbelievably, The United Nations recognised them as the rightful government of Cambodia and they retained a seat at the UN for 15 years following the genocide. Pol Pot died aged 73 after a long life with a wife, children and grandchildren. His only punishment was being put under house arrest for the last few years of his life. I can’t even imagine how angry that would make me if I had lived under the Khmer Rouge.

All in all, although my day at these two places was probably one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed, I am so glad I went. It really puts things into perspective and makes you realise just how ungrateful you are – and for that I am thankful. I’m going to try and not forget the sites I’ve seen – try and hold onto what I felt that day when I’m having a bad day or moaning about having to get up for work. It’s all irrelevant.

I complain about spoilt little rich kids such as the ones you see on MTV reality TV shows, and how they spend their money so freely and don’t appreciate anything. They make me angry. After all, I could live off what they spend in a week for a year. It makes me sick. But from visiting Cambodia I worry that we are to the Khmer people what those rich kids are to us – so spoilt and ungrateful. I mean we can’t help it as it’s all we’ve ever known, but from now on I’m going to try and give as much money as possible to every beggar and person who tries to sell me something while I’m in Cambodia. A small gesture to show how sorry I am. It’s easy to just stay at home and remain ignorant about the poverty and sadness in the world, and we’ll always do that to a certain extent, but I think it takes experiences like this to open your eyes, just a little bit, to just how lucky we are. That’s what I’ll take away from my day there and that’s why it’s probably one of the best things I’ve done whilst travelling. I would urge anyone to visit but just be prepared to leave feeling completely and utterly emotionally drained.

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