Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. You can feel the ghosts here.

The Killing Fields.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Svay Pray High School sits on a dusty road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived. Not only did the Khmer Rouge carefully transcribe the prisoners' interrogations; they also carefully photographed the vast majority of the inmates and created an astonishing photographic archive. Each of the almost 6,000 S-21 portraits that have been recovered tells a story shock, resignation, confusion, defiance and horror. Although the most gruesome images to come out of Cambodia were those of the mass graves, the most haunting were the portraits taken by the Khmer Rouge at S-21.

Today, S-21 Prison is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Inside the gates, it looks like any high school; five buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars, green lawns and lawn-bowling pitches. The ground-floor classrooms in one building have been left to appear as they were in 1977. The spartan interrogation rooms are furnished with only a school desk-and-chair set that faces a steel bed frame with shackles at each end. On the far wall are the grisly photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted the two Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January of 1979.

In another building the walls are papered with thousands of S-21 portraits. At first glance, the photograph of a shirtless young man appears typical of the prison photos. Closer inspection reveals that the number tag on his chest has been safety pinned to his pectoral muscle. With a bruised face and a pad-locked chain around his neck, a boy stands with his arms at his sides and looks straight into the camera. A mother with her baby in her arms stares into the camera with a look of indignant resignation. The photographs and confessions were collected in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out

Many of the questions asked by S-21 interrogators revolved around what the historian David Chandler has described as "Stalinist" charges of sedition--insurrection against lawful authority. Khmer Rouge torture manuals discouraged torture that ended with death, or what they described as "a loss of mastery." This was discussed at length in a torturer's manual found at S-21.

The head of S-21 Prison was Kang Kech Ieu, better known as Brother Duch. The former schoolteacher ran a tight ship where both guards and inmates feared for their lives. In a memo from a meeting, Duch told an interrogator, "Remind him about the welfare of his wife and children; does he know that his wife and children have been detained; now that he is here does he know what has become of his wife?" The guards, interrogators and other prison staff at S-21 were between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. These self-righteous teens served as the praetorian guards of the Khmer Rouge revolution.


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The Rules. My guide pointed out that, even though Pol Pot was eventually chased from power, many Khmer Rouge soldiers and officers still hold positions in Cambodia’s government today. Add to this the fact that an entire generation of educated people (not to mention their families) was wiped out, and it makes for a fairly scary state of affairs today in Cambodia. As we entered Tuol Sleng, our guide told us that we could ask questions during the tour, but instructed us to refrain from asking anything about politics. “There are ears in the walls here,” he said.
You see the same number on more than one prisoner because the number was their cell number and after they were killed someone else was put in that cell.
Our guide who lived through this horror — explained how the “educated” people were tracked down. Doctors, teachers, lawyers and anyone in a profession that obviously required an education were the first people targeted. Then it was people who wore glasses (since they could probably read), people who spoke more than one language, and people who had smooth hands or pale skin (since they probably didn’t work out in the fields). If that sounds crazy to you, it’s because it was. Roughly 1.5 million people were sentenced to death this way. But millions more died of starvation during the same period. Along with hunting down educated people, the Khmer Rouge emptied cities and sent people to work in the fields at glorified slave labor camps. There was never enough food, and people suffered an incredible amount. Our guide lost his father as well as 3 siblings to starvation during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and remembers eating everything from bugs to dirt in order to stay alive.
The torture system at Tuol Sleng was specifically designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were accused of. They were repeatedly coerced into implicating family members and friends as being fellow subversives. In turn, those named were then arrested, tortured and killed, allowing the perpetual cycle of mass murder to continue unabated.
A mother with her baby. The photographs and confessions were collected in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out
Number 152. The Khmer Rouge catalogued each of their inmates at S-21. Here, a young victim of the genocide wears his number pinned through the skin of his throat.
Photos of the prisoners of SP21, all these people were eventually tortured and sent to the killing fields to die, it is their skulls that are in the monument at the killing fields. Due to a mix up with folders and photos many of these people have never been identified.
This painting done by a former inmate shows how the prisoners were locked together and always no talking allowed.!!
Monks visit the prison to better understand the history of Cambodia.
The exact number of citizens killed during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror is still a topic for debate. Conservative estimates suggest a death toll of around 2 million. This figure equates to a quarter of the entire population of the time. This is the artist Bou Meng then and now. The artist is one of only a few survivors of S-21. A talented artist and former Khmer Rouge member, he was arrested on suspicion of working with the CIA but was kept alive to work on a portrait of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader when the regime fell. Beaten twice daily by his captors, Bou Meng became deaf and partially blind. Sadly his wife was one of the innocent victims murdered by the regime. All he has to remember her by is a dog-eared passport sized photograph.
The barbed wire was there to stop prisoners attempting suicide and thus depriving their captors the chance to torture and kill them.
A truly horrendous place.

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