Inside Sin City: The Genocide That Cambodia Has Never Forgotten

Inside the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The grounds were quiet that morning. The graves, fourteen in all, and whitewashed, yielded no secrets. They lay much as they had at their moment of discovery in early January, 1979. They lay in state, last forlorn victims of the Khmer Rouge, as the latter were being driven out by Vietnamese liberation forces.

To my left was the A-block, one of four concrete structures, each three storeys tall. To my right, the trees swayed gently, oblivious of all they gave shade to. I was at the former Security Prison 21, or S-21, the place known locally as Tuol Sleng, or ‘Hill of the Poisonous Trees’. It was a place that offered, since that grey morning in 1979, unwanted proof of human depravity.

Why I had come was a question I had no immediate answer to. Sight-seeing trips do not highlight trips to genocide museums, after all. Outside, life in the rest of Phnom Penh rolled on under an October sun. Inside, there was only silence broken by footfalls of the few who had entered with me.

Concentration camp rules

Before the museum entrance stood a board listing, in English and Khmer, the security regulations all prisoners had to follow during their incarceration. Translated imperfectly, they still held power to shock:

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 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.

It must have taken malignant forces of great strength to transform Tuol Svay Prey High School into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Forces that led to the replacing of tables and chairs with rusting bed frames and dried bloodstains. Forces that led to the replacing of blackboards with enlarged photographs of mutilated corpses chained to their beds. The photographs had been clicked by the Vietnamese on arrival. In an era of violent videogames and electronic bloodlust, they still induced gasps, and shivers down spines.

At the end of the first A-block corridor were dusty stairways leading to higher floors, more classroom-cells. Each of these detention rooms had held up to 100 prisoners, all shackled in irons for days, waiting only for release in the bloody furrows of the Khmer Rouge killing fields.

Further down the path outside stood two large earthenware jars. A board informed all who walked past that these were part of a range of techniques used by interrogators to extract confessions. Prisoners were hung by the arms, sometimes repeatedly ducked into jars of water, head first. And looking down upon this was the B-block, home of those condemned to death.

The Museum was once the Chao Ponhea Yat High School

All B-block’s ground floor held were mug shots. Thousands — approximately 7,000 photographic negatives were left behind — sealed for posterity behind glass. In black and white they stared at visitors, all nameless, blameless victims who, at the time of that shutter clicking, must have prayed for the swift arrival of death. All who entered Tuol Sleng were photographed either on arrival, just before they were murdered, or soon after. Men, women, children, the young, the beaten, the dead. The few who had been identified over the years had names listed alongside. Some gazed into nothingness; others looked into the camera with faces full of questions; some even had the vague hint of a smile. To stare back at them — three decades separating victim from visitor — was unnerving.

A number of walls in Tuol Sleng held paintings by a man called Vann Nath. He was one of possibly twelve survivors from an estimated 20,000 who passed through the gates. Those who survived did so for skills they possessed, skills that could be of use to those who held them. Vann Nath could paint, and was promptly assigned the task of creating paintings of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. When the nightmare was over, he began painting from memory, recreating scenes of torture to which he had been unwilling witness.

Tuol Sleng means ‘Hill of the Poisonous Trees’

The entire museum was enclosed in electrified barbed wire, all its windows covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes and potential suicides. Crude brick walls split the ground floor of the C-block into crude cells. Some still held leg irons and ammunition boxes that were used as latrine cans. At the end of the corridor was an empty space where, until 2002, had hung a map of Cambodia made entirely out of skulls of victims found in graves within the complex. Protests had led to the map’s removal, but some skulls were still on display, staring out of crowded shelves.

Much has been written about the horrors of S-21. What occurred there has been meticulously documented. We know, for instance, that prisoners were tortured — within days of arrival — into confessing crimes against the Khmer Rouge revolution. Corpses were initially buried near the prison but, as that space was clearly inadequate, victims were driven 15 miles from Phnom Penh to a place called Choeung Ek — what historians now refer to as the Killing Fields. Once there, they were compelled to first dig their own graves, and were then killed with blows to the back of the head. Ammunition was too precious to be wasted.

Approximately 20,000 prisoners were killed here

I had seen enough. On my way out, I stopped by a single-storey building near the exit. It housed the museum offices and a gift shop. I bought nothing. In the shade of a few trees nearby, children played, much as an earlier generation must have in what was then still a high school.

The grounds were quiet that afternoon. The dead were at rest.

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