This is Part Two of my travelogue on visiting Cambodia. Part One is about visiting a Cambodian Orphanage (click on the link to read). A visit to Cambodia is probably incomplete without a trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It helps you to understand the history of Cambodia, and explains its present state as a developing country.
The museum is open daily from 8am to 5pm. And locals may enter without paying a fee. For foreigners, you pay the entrance fee of either USD3 (without an audio tour) or USD6 with one. Audio tours are available in 15 languages. I would highly recommend that you take the audio tour for the full Tuol Sleng experience. Because I didn’t, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate some of the exhibits and important sites.
In the first picture above, you may have caught a glimpse of the barbed wire fence that surrounds Tuol Sleng, or S-21 as it was called. And there’s even more barbed wire within. 😦 Photography is not permitted within the classrooms, and while barbed wire covered the facade of the school buildings, I decided not to take any pictures of those too. If you must, you can probably find some pictures online.
According to this article from the Phnom Penh Post, Tuol Sleng literally means “a poisonous hill”.
It is actually a rather depressing place. And a Cambodian friend told me that her parents cried when they visited Tuol Sleng. They were lucky to have escaped Pol Pot’s reign of terror, and the suffering that so many had to go through in Tuol Sleng.
Unfortunately, many others were not as fortunate. Some 12,000 to 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng and there are only 12 confirmed survivors. We got to meet one of them within the compounds! (Read on to find out who he is)
It is hard to imagine that Tuol Sleng was previously one of the secondary schools in the capital. It was called “Tuol Svay Prey” High School. After 17th April, 1975, Pol Pot and gang made it their S.21 prison (Security office 21). Surrounded by a double wall of corrugated iron and dense barbed wires, it was where those deemed to be political enemies were tortured and killed.
Some Regulations that prisoners had to follow:
[ #6 says “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all”, while #10 says “If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge” ]
The classrooms in this former secondary school were either sub-divided into tiny, individual cells, or used for mass detention. And those cells were indeed tiny, and still have iron chains attached to the brick walls.
Here in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, you’ll find the instruments of torture, documents like lists of the prisoners’ names and their mugshots, victims’ clothes and belongings.
In this picture above, you see a wooden frame that used to have cables hanging from it, that students used during their exercise sessions. The Khmer Rouge changed this into their torture device during interrogations instead. “The interrogators tied both hands of the prisoners to the back [using] a rope and lift[ed] the prisoners upside down. They did this until the prisoners lost consciousness. Then they dipped the prisoner’s head into a jar of smelly, filthy water, which they normally used as fertilizer for the crops in the terrace outside. By doing so, the victims quickly regain[ed] consciousness, and the interrogators could continue their interrogation.”
It was indeed HORRIFIC. And one particular room in Tuol Sleng has human skulls in glass cabinets and display cases. Many skulls had gunshot wounds at the top – the victims were probably in a kneeling or seated position when their lives were taken so viciously.
Prisoners from Tuol Sleng were taken to the ‘killing fields’ at Choeung Ek and executed and buried in mass graves.
On a lighter note, we got to meet one of the survivors of Tuol Sleng.
Chum Mey (pictured below) lost his wife and four children during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
His skill as a mechanic saved him, after some 12 days and nights of beatings and repeated electrocution. He was “put to work repairing the typewriters his torturers used to record their forced confessions”. He himself had been forced into confessing that he had done counter-revolutionary work for the CIA, an organization he did not even know about.
“How can I say I would have behaved differently? Would I have had the strength to refuse to kill, if the penalty was my own death?
It was such a rare chance that I survived when so many people were killed there. I think about it every night, how lucky I was to survive. Why did I survive?” – Chum Mey, in the introduction to his book.
You may purchase a copy of Chum Mey’s book, which has been translated into multiple languages, at USD10 each.
And interestingly enough, Chum Mey handed out business cards to us. There is a Victims Association Of Democratic Kampuchea of which he is the Association Director. He can be contacted at 012 712 148 / email@example.com. The official website is http://www.ksaemksan.info. 🙂
For some 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days, the people in Cambodia suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. It is estimated that approximately 2 million people perished during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Many died from starvation, when about 2 million city people were driven to the rural areas to fulfil Pol Pot’s dream of a “peasant utopia”. Most did not know how to farm and could not survive the hard labor, especially when they fell ill.
It is no understatement: the country’s development had suffered a huge setback because of those years, no thanks to Pol Pot’s warped ideology.
However, I am hopeful that Cambodia will see many prosperous decades ahead with the right leadership. I met many young and hopeful Cambodians during this trip. Some of them have received scholarships to prestigious universities abroad – one guy is headed for Harvard, and he’s one of the indigenous people “from the forest” (or so he jokingly tells us). Many Cambodians speak multiple languages such as French, Thai, Mandarin, English, etc. I truly admire their drive and enthusiasm for learning.
In any way we can, let’s lend our support to this country which has been through some dark times, and is headed for a brighter future. 🙂
*As the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is, in essence, a memorial site, do dress modestly, speak softly and do not smoke within its compounds. 🙂