A school, a prison, the end of the road; Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was one of hundreds of detention and interrogation centres created all over Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge — who gave the former high school the sinisterly innocuous name S-21 — where countless thousands of Cambodians were ruthlessly processed until they were dead.
Visiting today, the setting itself seems no less innocuous: a series of long, three-storey buildings set around green, carefully tended gardens. Under the bright sunlight, it looks like an ideal school and less so like a perfect torture centre, but that is what it was. Of the 14,000 people known to have come in here, only seven were found alive at the end — although some would have been released during S-21’s four long years of operations.
Caged in by barbed wire, electric fences and 300 guards, the 1,500 prisoners who found themselves here at any one time for whatever reason were all destined to die, but only after they had confessed to their “crimes”. At first, S-21 took in the regime’s undesirables, the educated, city people, but as the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia grew many of the prisoners were former KR cadres who had become casualties of the increasingly deranged internal purges. Or, they were those who had been denounced by someone who knew them under a whisper of suspicion; or some were there because their names had been surrendered by those sufficiently broken by torture into giving any names they could think of. One theme that frequently comes up from this time is how people were able to use the Khmer Rouge to get revenge on neighbours for some slight in the past.
Among those who arrived, many may not even have been aware that they were in the capital city. They would have known they were somewhere special though. S-21 was the only place in all of Cambodia then that had 24-hour electricty. It is hard to imagine what they would have thought or felt as they passed the sign above the entrance gate that read “Fortify the spirit of the revolution! Be on your guard against the strategy and tactics of the enemy so as to defend the country the people and the party.” They must have known that their incarceration had been deemed necessary to protect the revolution, but couldn’t possibly have known why. In fact, no one could have.
Prisoners dying at S-21 was considered bad form, which required even more paperwork. Barbed wire criss-crossed the front of the buildings so that prisoners could not commit suicide, though little could be done to stop one who stabbed himself in the throat with the pen he had been given to sign his “confession”. Another tried, but failed, to kill himself by swallowing nails. An irritated entry in the prison’s manual bemoaned the loss of time and good medicine required to treat him.
That manual is a chilling 42-page “how to” on the transfer of information deemed to be inside the prisoner to outside the prisoner. Notwithstanding humanity’s long history of descent into baseness whenever the circumstances are right, the interrogator’s manual was clear that there was no reward in this work:
“It’s not something we do for fun. We must hurt them so that they respond quickly. Another purpose is to break them and make them lose their will. It’s not something that’s done out of individual anger, or for self-satisfaction. So we beat them to make them afraid, but absolutely not to kill them.”
In common with other regimes so absolutely sure in their rightness, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, and these form the base of what you will see at Tuol Sleng: thousands of photographs of prisoners taken just after they arrive. It is possible to lose yourself for hours in their faces, wishing that time could stop so that they might have lived. Their expressions are startled, defiant, afraid; some even smile because that’s what you do for the camera, which would have been such a rare sight.
Once they had provided their useful confession, those who didn’t die at S-21 were shipped off to Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields, just 15 kilometres out of Phnom Penh. There, under cover of darkness and the ugly drone of an electricity generator, they were coolly, efficiently and cost-effectively dispatched. Their bones still push through the earth today.
A recently installed exhibition details the experiences of survivors Chun Mey and Bou Meng, both of whom were considered useful because of their skills as, respectively, a mechanic and painter. Meng was able to produce propaganda paintings and Mey repaired typewriters and machinery. The exhibit includes a series of paintings by Meng depicting the different torture methods used on the prisoners.
There are several opportunities to find out more during your visit. Documentary film screenings take place throughout the day. There is also an opportunity to meet and talk to Meng or Mey every day between 14:30 and 15:00 (translation into English is provided). On Mondays and Fridays between 14:00 and 15:00 and Wednesdays from 09:00 to 10:00, a public lecture series covering a range of related topics is hosted at the museum.
If you’d like to learn more about Tuol Sleng and in particular Comrade Duch, the man who ran S-21, and was finally convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010 by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for crimes against humanity, we thoroughly recommend Nic Dunlop’s book, The Lost Executioner, from which a lot of the information above was learned.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.