Monday, December 22, 2008

Cambodia Trip '08 – Day 03: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

(Entrance to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum)

We were suppose to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum the previous afternoon but thanks to the traffic jam that we got caught in, we had to reschedule it for early on the 3rd day we were in Phnom Penh. After the early breakfast, the group piled into our provided transport and drove out about 10 minutes where our hotel was located. Along the way we saw a lot of people out that morning as it was the Cambodian Independence Day holiday. We were later told that they were going to see the parade along the Mekong river and that traffic would definitely be hard to avoid at that area. Learning our lesson from yesterday, our minivan went the opposite side where the locals were headed to.

We reached the museum at almost the beginning of their hours of operations and paid the entry fee at the entrance. Due to the early hour, we practically had the museum all to ourselves to explore. We did not have the tour guide that we had the previous day for that morning’s trip but we did have our helpful Cambodian hosts who walked us through the buildings and gave us a little bit of background of what had happened here.

The former high school building was converted to a prison and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge when they came into power in Cambodia in 1975. Known then as the “Security Prison 21” (S-21), the complex was infamous as being the place where prisoners were mercilessly tortured to naming other “traitors” who in turn were also arrested, imprisoned and tortured. A lot of those tortured here were eventually sent to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields to be executed and buried in mass graves. Of the close to 17,000 prisoners that had passed through the prison, we were told that only a handful were still alive to tell their stories of their experiences in that hellish place.

(Description at the museum entrance)

The first sight that were stopped at was the tombs of the last victims of S-21. When teh Vietnamese army liberated the prison from the Khmer Rouge, they found 14 bodies left in the rooms in one of the blocks of the prison. It was documented that upon hearing the advancing Vietnamese troops, the interrogators killed these 14 prisoners rather than let them survive and implicate them. The bodies were found in a pitiful state after enduring months of repeated torture and being killed violently. These bodies were given a burial on the site where they lost their lives and their white painted tombs were a clear reminder of what had happened there.

(L: Tomb of the last victims of S-21, R: Torture room interior)

(Bed and implements used during the interrogation process found with the last victims)

The first school block that we went in had the original beds where the last 14 victims were found. In each room, there were a faded photograph on the wall that detailed what had been found in the room when the Vietnamese army liberated the prison. Without any written description of what had happened in the room, we were only able to guess what might had happened there based on the condition of the rusting iron bed frame and the remaining torture implements in the room. I noticed that the supposedly blood stains that was said to still be visible on the floors in those room were not that apparent. It would be even difficult to step into the room if they were.

(L: Prison rules, R: Water containers where prisoners would be dunked in head first during torture)

The next school block had walls and walls of prisoner mug shots taken when they first arrive at S-21. It was disheartening to see that the prisoners even included old people and young children. It was related to us that in more than a few occasions, whole families would be dragged in to be tortured for information to implicate their elders. We went through each wall to see the pictures of the victims knowing that all of them met their ends within these walls. A lot of the mug shots showed the prisoners with a calm demeanor which I was not sure if it was forced on by their captors for the photo session or if the victims were already resigned to their fates when they were arrested.

(L: Mug shots from S-21 records, R: Iron shackles used on prisoners)

The next school block was kept the way as it was when the prison was liberated. The whole block was enclosed with wire fencing to prevent not only escape but also from prisoners on the top floors committing suicide by jumping over the edge to escape torture. The rooms on the ground floor were partitioned into small cells that we were told prisoners would be shackled to the floor. Each room wall had an entrance knocked through it to connect the classrooms into one big cell block. A few of the cell walls looked that they were recently restored as some of the bricks used looked fairly new. Recent restorations aside, it was hard not to be affected when walking though the prison cells. There were more than a few occasions in the block that I felt a lingering presence and the feeling of being smothered. I would later find out that I was not the only one who felt that way while in the 3rd block as a few other reported feeling similarly distressed.

(Cell block at S-21)

(L: External fencing, R: Cell interior)

(L: Shackles used in the cells, R: Disused chalkboard as reminder that the prison used to be a school)

The last classroom block that we went into had the collection of torture implements that was used in the prison. Several had written descriptions and drawings made by the survivors of S21 that detailed how they were used. Pictures of the torture victims and the bodies that were left behind in the prison were also kept in this block. Most poignantly was the skull remains in the last room that was originally from the infamous map of Cambodia made out of skulls that used to hang in the room. It has since been dismantled but some of the skulls used were still kept there.

(Implements of torture - Water boarding and dunking)

We spent almost 2 hours at the museum being witnesses of the atrocities that had happened within the walls of S-21. It was a sobering visit, as it was to Choeung Ek the pervious afternoon, to remind us that such genocide had happened here. It was a lesson that we learn and take to heart so it would never happen again.

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