13th MARCH 2019
After riding in scorchingly high temperatures for eight days straight, it’s such a relief to get up late and not have to think about cycling. I’m feeling the same sense of relaxation that a Monday to Friday worker would feel when they open their eyes on a Saturday morning. And, even though a cycle trip bears very little comparison to work, it’s still lovely to have a day off.
The question is what should I do with a day off in Phnom Penh ? There are plenty of options from food tours, temples, visiting the Royal Palace or taking a sunset cruise on the Mekong River. It takes a bit of deliberation, but I finally decide I’m going to explore a very dark chapter in Cambodia’s history and visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Even beforehand I know that it’s likely to be a sad and sobering afternoon, yet somehow I still have a strong urge to visit the site. I know that people who go to Auschwitz say their visit helps them learn and remember the past, and in this way such genocides are never repeated. I’m not so sure though. The horrors of Rwanda and Bosnia took place twenty years after the horrors of Cambodia, which in turn took place forty years after the horrors of Nazi Germany. I don’t think we ever really learn. Human beings will always be capable of staggering levels of brutality under the wrong leaders or the wrong circumstances.
In Cambodia’s case the wrong circumstances came about as a result of an overflow of the Vietnam War alongside the country’s own Civil War. The ultra-communist Khmer Rouge forces were able to overthrow the Cambodian government in 1975 and went on to impose their barbaric and inhumane regime on the unstable country. Under their fanatical leader, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to turn Cambodia into the purest of communist states. His vision for the country included evicting citizens from all cities, forcing them to work on the land and making the country completely self sufficient. The regime isolated Cambodia from the outside world, stopped foreign imports, closed all schools and banks, banned religion and forbid anyone from owning property or having personal possessions. White collar workers would be sent to work on farm collectives for fourteen to sixteen hours per day with absolutely no idea what they were doing. Thousands died from overwork, disease or starvation.
The Khmer Rouge soldiers were mostly recruited from uneducated and easily manipulated peasants, who now had a steady job, food and a little bit of power. In the truest communist sense, peasants were now equal to the urban elite. People who were educated, had ‘soft hands’, spoke a foreign language and any employee of the previous government were all seen as enemies of the state. Along with teachers, academics, lawyers, artists, monks and foreigners, they were rounded up, tortured and sent to be executed. This is where the grim Tuol Sleng Prison (or S-21) comes into the picture.
When I show up there’s already a number of Western tourists milling outside and queuing at the entrance. I buy an audio-tour with my entry fee, put the headphones on and am transported back to a terrifying time in the late 1970’s. The first thing that hits me, for all the horrors that took place here, is just how ordinary the place looks. What became such a centre for suffering was once an everyday high school. There are five buildings, all three storeys tall, arranged round three sides of a rectangular courtyard of green lawns and palm trees.
Building A occupies the left side of the courtyard and is where most of the torture took place. Each bare room has dirty, yellowing walls and a floor with alternately coloured orange and white tiles. These used to be classrooms, but desks were removed in favour of a single metal bed, bolted to the floor and to which prisoners were shackled hand and foot. They would be immobilised and helpless as they were tortured into signing false confessions which implicated their friends and family members. To gain this information the prisoners would be beaten, electrocuted, have fingernails pulled out and even experimentally operated on. I’m staggered that one human being can do this to another, especially when the torturers knew their victims were innocent.
In each of the ground floor rooms there is a large picture on the wall of that room’s final victim, lying dead and still shackled grotesquely to the same metal bed that sits here today. Mercifully, The Khmer Rouge were eventually ousted in 1979, after the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia to defeat them. The victorious soldiers swept into Phnom Penh so quickly that the Khmer Rouge essentially just dropped everything and ran, without having time to cover up their atrocities. About two days after arriving in Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese soldiers noticed a stench coming from this very building, went to investigate and found the grisly sights within.
Buildings B and C run along the rear of the courtyard, with crudely built single cells on the ground floor and mass detention rooms on the top. These large cells held around forty people, crammed in like sardines and lying top to tail, chained to the walls by their ankles. To wash the prisoners a guard would simply put a hose through the iron bars once a week and spray them all. Malaria, ringworm and other skin diseases were rife. Part of the ground floor is given over to an eerie, black and white picture gallery, some of which are prison mug shots and some of which are head shots of deceased victims. In many pictures their glazed, dead eyes are still open and staring hauntingly upwards. Many of the victims are women, teenagers and sometimes even children. If a prisoner made a confession and was executed, the regime would then kill their entire family so there was no-one left who could take revenge later. There are also pictures of Khmer Rouge soldiers, the ‘cadres’, all dressed in black and, unsettlingly, most of them appear to be teenagers.
Building D shows various instruments of torture and has individual stories from the very few survivors. There are accounts of women prisoners being raped and of mothers having their babies killed in front of them. Again, I just cannot fathom how humans can descend into such savagery, save for the old ‘I was only following orders’ excuse. The regime made sure the teenage soldiers did follow their orders though, as any failure to do so would quickly result in their own execution. Apparently, almost one third of Tuol Sleng’s prison guards were also killed as the regime’s paranoia began to take hold. The last section of this room has a number of human skulls on show in glass display cabinets. On some of these skulls I see dents, holes and fractures, disturbing indications of a brutal and violent death. I exit the building and sit on a bench outside while listening to the final section of the audio-tour, as well as some personal testimonies from inmates and former guards. It’s desperately surreal to be sitting here on a beautiful sunny day listening to the horrendous stories that took place forty years ago at this very same location.
After prisoners made their forced confessions, they were then able to be trucked away and executed in a location known as Choeung Ek, about 15km South of Phnom Penh. A Cambodian journalist coined a term in the 1970’s that is still widely used today to describe the mass execution sites around the country – ‘The Killing Fields.’ Out of an estimated 18,000 prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng Prison, there were only twelve known survivors, of which five were children. This handful of survivors were either children who hid when the prison was evacuated or adults who had shown themselves to be of some use to the Khmer Rouge. An artist was kept alive to paint portraits of Khmer Rouge leaders, while another was spared because he could repair the regime’s typewriters and sewing machines.
One of these survivors, Chum Mey, takes up residence most days at a shaded stall in the courtyard, selling autographed books recounting his time at the prison. In the book he tells of getting so hungry in prison that he would resort to eating rats that scurried into his cell. He’s also still deaf in one ear as a result of having electrodes shoved in there during electrocution torture. He just looks like an ordinary, humble old man. Part of me is astonished he would choose to spend so much time here after what he went through. Then I read the blurb on his stall, which tells me he wants to spread the message to foreigners about what happened here during Khmer Rouge times and to make sure it’s never forgotten. Vanny tells me later that these books are his only form of income.
The museum is as depressing and confronting as I imagined it would be. I think this feeling is exacerbated because the site has remained almost untouched for forty years, a stubborn reminder of the sinister past while a new modern city has built up around it. As I walk back to my guesthouse I can’t help thinking about the sense of fear and hopelessness the prisoners must have felt. Their fate was inevitable; they would be tortured until confession, then trucked away in the middle of the night to be executed. And they would have known with certainty that this was their future.
Looking back at these events now, it seems almost unbelievable that they actually happened. I remember when I was a kid, hearing snippets on the news about Cambodia and The Khmer Rouge, but I really had no idea of the full, shocking extent of what went on. Todays visit has filled many gaps in my knowledge from that era, although I have to say it’s done nothing for my faith in human nature. Back at the guesthouse I tell Vanny where I’ve spent my afternoon. He just looks at me and nods his head ever so slightly. Cambodia has moved on massively from those tragic days, but anyone over forty-five will remember and will have had their lives shaped in some way by those terrible events.