When you’re in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, you have no choice but to visit the Tuol Sleng museum and the killing fields. It’s not a nice or fun or happy experience. No, it’s awful, hard and will probably leave you teared up. But, it’s one of those places we can’t shut our eyes to, it’s important to know and understand what happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period (1975 – 1979).
Tuol Sleng Museum
The Tuol Sleng museum, or Security Prison S21, is a former high school which was used as a prison during the Khmer Rouge period. 17.000 – 20.000 people were imprisoned in this facility and only 12 of them survived.
Walking through the museum gives me an eerie feeling. It’s hard to imagine that it used to be a school, a place that’s supposed to be carefree and safe. The former class rooms are transformed into cells, some of them only 1×2 meters. Other class rooms are transformed into mass cells where the prisoners were shackled to the floor. I look at walls and walls full of pictures of the people that were imprisoned here. Pictures taken right before they were brought in and after weeks of torture. Their faces go from showing pride and inviolability, to deep fear and lifelessness, sometimes hardly recognizable due to their injuries. I see pictures from teenage boys, thinking they were invincible, believing they would survive anything before they were imprisoned. Pictures from young children, fear in their eyes.
The paintings on the wall show me details of how the prisoners were tortured. Nails ripped out whilst pouring alcohol over it, almost drowning the prisoners, performing medical experiments. The more I see and read about it, the sicker I start to feel. And then, more and more pictures of the innocent people that went through hell here. A woman next to me is silently crying, others are looking at the pictures in disbelief, shaking their heads. It’s hard to imagine this only happend 36 years ago.
After I’m finished in the museum and make my way to the exit when I’m stopped by a lady that works at the museum. One of the survivors is at the facility today and she asks if I want I can talk to him. Tears well up in my eyes when I see the old man sitting at this place, where he spend the worst years of his life. I smile at him and nod, but I don’t have the guts to talk to him, I just can’t. What do you say to people like him? I’m sorry? I hope you’re okay now? Nothing seems appropriate and I wonder If I’m even able to form words at this moment.
Killing Fields, Choeung Ek
After the museum I make my way to Choeung Ek, the killing fields. The place where most prisoners from S21 (and other prisons) were transported to and found their dead.
The place has something peaceful, with a lot of greenery and a serene atmosphere. Just as I, the other visitors are walking around silently listening to their audio tour that explains about the horrors that happend here. As peaceful as it looks, I’m basically walking from mass grave to mass grave, all indicated with what kind of grave it was. There’s even a mass grave found with only people without heads.
The lady from the audio tour tells me that parts of clothing and body parts are still found every day, right beneath my feet. They play the music that the people heard when they were imprisoned here, and a chill runs down my spine, it’s one of the most eerie things I’ve every heard.
And then I’m standing in front of the killing tree. The story I’m being told is so appaling that it’s hard to believe it’s true. The big tree I’m looking at was used to kill babies and smaller children. They were held by their feet and smacked agains the tree, after which they were directly thrown into this mass grave right next to it. They were killed so they wouldn’t take revenge on their parents deaths in the future.
It starts to rain a little bit but I don’t really care, I sit down somewhere quiet and listen to the personal stories from people that were imprisoned here. I look at the monument, full of skulls and bones from the bodies found here. And again I feel the tears well up in my eyes and wonder how all this could happend just so short ago.
Tuol Sleng: 7 am – 5.30 pm, entrance $2 ($6 for a guided tour)
Killing fields: 7.30 am – 5.30 pm, entrance: $6
Have you visited the Tuol Sleng museum and the Killing Fields?