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When I emerged from Phnom Penh’s genocide museum, I didn’t want to utter a word. A feeling of mourning washed over me.
The museum was the most ghastly place in of all Cambodia… where unimaginable acts of torture history and bloodshed began. Country man killing country man. Death found no distinction between young or old, man or woman. Even worse, it took place in a school.
Phnom Penh’s genocide museum: The largest torture chamber in Cambodian history
Cambodia has a very solemn and tragic side to its lovely Khmer face. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka Security Prison 21 or S21) was the notorious genocide camp from 1975-1979, where prisoners (mostly innocent victims) of the Khmer Rouge were interrogated, tortured and killed.
The museum grounds still shield the three dreadful school buildings, which were once converted into horrific persecution chambers of Pot Pol’s regime. Pot Pol, a Maoist revolutionary led the Khmer Rouge from 1968 until his death in 1998. He took over Cambodia in 1975 and attempted to create an agrarian-based Communist society, pushing city dwelling families to the countryside to farm. Anyone who opposed this was seen as a traitor. The law:
“No Buddhism, money or education.”
Thus, high-class intellectuals, businessmen, Buddhists and foreigners were often captured and brought to this security prison to be tortured and then executed.
Pol’s rule lasted from 1975-1979 and within that time approximately two million Khmer and foreign lives were lost to starvation, gross maltreatment, murder and hard labor.
Walking the school grounds of the museum, you’ll find buildings used as prisons, interrogation rooms and torture chambers. “Building A” housed 20 rooms used to interrogate high officials. They were chained to the bed, reduced to torture tactics and starvation. Building B & C held rooms converted into small isolated cells or mass detention facilities. Portrait photos of the Khmer Rouge, its victims and documentary paintings hang on display to take you back in time.
Inside Phnom Penh’s genocide museum: Prison cells
Faces of the Khmer Rouge
Although the Khmer Rouge was led by Pol, Tuol Sleng genocide camp (or S21) was orchestrated under the hand of a man name ‘Dutch’. As the right hand of Pol, Dutch doled out orders to the Khmer Rouge soldiers to use torture tactics to deal with their captives.
Horrifically, the soldiers were composed mostly of teens and young adults, who were separated from their families and indoctrinated into the Rouge. It’s chilling to stare into the photographed faces of these soldiers, to see them possess a peaceful confidence and raw innocence, upon initiation into this killing army. After entering however, they were taught cruel and barbarous tactics and were made to turn in friends and family. It was at their hands that thousands suffered unimaginable atrocities.
The prisoners of Tuol Sleng genocide camp, S21
But more silencing in the genocide museum, are the photographs of the prisoners, whose looks of confusion, fear, shock, betrayal, sadness,.. tell of a tragic tale of undeserved bloodshed.
Once you entered as a prisoner, you never left.
…And Dutch and the Khmer Rouge made certain of this. Various abusive tactics were used to grill prisoners and to get them to admit to crimes or offenses: holding heads underwater, knifing, electric shock treatments, suffocation with plastic bags, beatings, etc… Prisoners’ were tagged, their testimonies were transcribed, archived and their stay was documented until death. Each body had to be accounted for to ensure than none had escaped. The fear of rebellion was so great, that once a family member was an S21 captive, the entire family was captured and also exterminated. This form of genocide was to prevent family members from seeking revenge against the Pol’s revolution in the future.
Prisoners were held for 2-3 months until they were killed. Captives weren’t allowed to talk to each other or the guards and were given only four spoons of rice, twice a day and stayed in unhygienic conditions, receiving a bath hosing only 4 times a week.
Where does the Killing Fields come in?
Only after the body count grew beyond maximum capacity at S21, the persecuted were then taken to the Killing Fields for execution and mass burial.
Seeing wall-to-wall displays of S21’s prisoners (men, women and children), documented deaths and paintings of atrocities makes this a sorrowful tomb. Of the 14000 that entered S21, only 7 people survived.
Visiting it will certainly jolt you harder than a visit to the Killing Fields; it’ll leave you winded for hours.
Getting to Phnom Penh’s genocide museum
A motordop or tuk-tuk drive will take you to s21 which is south of downtown. If you have the time, walking is also feasible but it stands a distance from the Royal Palace and National Museum along Phnom Penh’s tourist coastline. The Killing Fields however, are on the outskirts of Phnom Phen and can be reached by taxi/driver or tour. There’s a one day budget tour from Capitol Guesthouse including these two sites as well as a few others.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S21 (website here)
The Killing Fields Museum (site here)
Resources to learn more about this genocidal history :
Time article “A brief history of the Khmer Rouge” (here)
” First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” by Luong Ung