Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

I'll admit that before going to Cambodia, I knew almost nothing about it. I hadn't ever heard of Phnom Penh, had heard of Siem Riep, but couldn't have told you where in the world it was. One of the first things that comes up if you google Phnom Penh is the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We didn't have much time, and we were able to get a tuktuk for the entire day to take us wherever we wanted, so we decided to do both in one day. 

It wasn't the most inspiring morning, but I think it was a very, very important morning. I know almost nothing about the Vietnam War (or Korean, for that matter), I'm assuming because of two reasons. In my public school education, I've learned more about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War together than any one topic, I would say. That's because every history class I've ever taken started with a brief explanation of the religion freedom squabble that happened in England, the pilgrims coming over, and Thanksgiving. We would get to the wars, and spend weeks on those topics, sort of skimming over the events between. By the time we got past World War 2, we would have two weeks left of school (if that). I'm not sure that it's because America doesn't want to talk about the Vietnam War, because I've had teachers that would say things I'm sure they didn't read from a high school textbook. Either way, I knew nothing about the history in southeast Asia.

Now I do. 

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is in the middle of Phnom Penh, and took less than 10 minutes to get to from our hotel, which was basically in the middle of the city. When our tuktuk driver, Lucky (more on him later), stopped outside the museum, we didn't know why. High walls protected the former school from the street corner, and we walked in. 

Entrance to the museum was $2 per person, and there weren't many signs telling anyone where to go or how to behave, but everyone there was respectful and seemed to understand where to go and what to look at in the same order, making the entire place quiet and calm. 


Tuol Sleng was the site for the Security Prison 21 (S-21) during Pulpot's Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. It was a high school, but in 1975 became a prison and torture center.

Pol Pot, the communist leader of the Khmer Rouge, targeted education largely. Anyone with glasses, soft hands, light skin were targets, as any of those characteristics proved they hadn't been working in the fields or contributing to his communistic vision of Cambodia. Over 12,000 people died here, with only 12 survivors. 


In the middle of the four buildings, there are 14 coffins in a graveyard for the last bodies found at the prison.

Each of the four buildings were 3 stories, and each showed a different aspect of the prison.

Building A showed rooms in which prisoners were held. In most of the rooms there was only a metal bed,  an "excrement box", and many times a rod with handcuffs, used to restrain the prisoner by having his feet or hands be held together with the pole.


The rooms showed pictures of victims in the same room we were standing in. The pattern of the tile and the same furniture showed that we were most times standing in the exact same spot as some of the prisoners shown in the pictures.


Rod used to handcuff prisoners.
The rules of the prison were shown right at the beginning of the tour.


Because the prison was a school, this structure was left over from the school. It was used as an exercise tool, ropes for climbing were attached at the top. However, once it because a prison, the structure started being used for torture. The ropes held prisoners upside down during interrogation and torture until they became unconscious, at which point the prisoner's head would be lowered into the pots underneath them, which were filled with sewer water. The prisoner would wake up, and torturing would begin again. Prisoners were tortured until they confessed to their crimes - but because they weren't imprisoned for an actual crime, many of them didn't know how to answer, and the torture continued.




Building B had pictures of prisoners, This was probably a third of the pictures of prisoners in this room, and there close to eight rooms of pictures. Every single person in the same position, many looking straight through the camera. The chair that the victims were forced to sit in was at the prison, and the seat was about an 8in. x 8in. piece of metal, and a rod served as the back of the chair, with a curved metal piece as the headpiece. There were also pictures of the victims having their pictures taken, sitting in the chair. The torture clearly started immediately when the victims arrived.




Building C had the barbed wire left on the building. In the years that this was a prison, barbed wire covered all openings, ensuring that no one could jump from the windows, or if they did, they would surely suffer.


Building A had open rooms with beds, but Building C had cells. The lower levels had cells made of brick. We didn't think it could get much worse than this, but we hadn't gone upstairs yet.





The upper levels of the building had wooden cells, this time with doors. The brick cells didn't go up to the top of the room, nor were they covered, and the windows let light into the room. The wooden cells had doors, and the walls were much taller. Not all of the cells had a window in it, so some cells were very dark.






The fourth building had pictures, posters, testimonies and explanations of how people in charge of the prison are being punished for what they did. Dates regarding the trials were many times as late as 2011. International lawyers worked for many of those in charge at the prison, trying to defend them and what they did. There was question as to if having these trials last so long was a good idea, as it didn't allow survivors to forget what they went through, if the story still lives on in the news.


Walking through the four buildings took about an hour, and I think we were silent for 50 of those 60 minutes. We chose not to watch the video at the end of the tour, and walked out to find our tuktuk again. As we walked toward the exit, a man sat at a table, one of the seven survivors of the prison. He was selling his book, his story of his time in the prison. I found that fact incredibly sad for two reasons: he has to spend his days at the location of probably the worst time in his life, selling the story of it while certainly not being treated the way he should be by tourists and locals, and that the economic situation in Cambodia and his personal economic situation is such that he would make better money sitting outside the prison where he lost his wife and years of his life.

We left, and headed for the Killing Fields.

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