Monday, February 11, 2013

Cambodia, Pt 3: The Genocide Museum In Phnom Penh

The barbed wire remaining on the site of "S-21" is no longer electrified, but can still raise unpleasant images.

Just as a fair warning: the posts over the next few days may be unpleasant for some of you to read. I thought perhaps this introduction might be a way to ease you into it, if that's possible.

Man's inhumanity to man is often difficult to face, but it's something you can't avoid when visiting a site such as Tuol Sleng, one of over 150 "interrogation" centers the Khmer Rouge used as what were, in essence, really nothing more than torture chambers and murdering sites while they ran roughshod over the men women and children of Cambodia (then Kampuchea) from 1975 until their fall in 1979.

Not perfect, but a pano showing part of the inner courtyard of the S-21 grounds

Tuol Sleng was a high school until the Khmer Rouge won the civil war in Cambodia in 1975, and in August it was converted into a prison and interrogation center, housing as many as 1,500 prisoners at a time. Estimates as to how many actually passed through Security Prison 21 (aka S-21) differ, but the number lies somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand. You can bet only a few handful walked out of there as free citizens.

Open office windows at S-21

When they began their reign of terror in 1975 the Khmer Rouge justified such centers as merely a means of locating and prosecuting those from the previous Lon Nol regime, but their means of gathering information began brutally and degenerated from there.

Most of those brought to S-21 ended up at Choeung Ek sooner rather than later; Choeung Ek being the site better known to the world as the Killing Fields, where over a million met their deaths in some of the most brutal ways imaginable. For the first year S-21 was open for business the bodies were buried on the grounds and nearby area, but they ran out of room.

A tourist comes out of a torture room on the second floor of one wing. 

If you take that figure of a million and break it down for the roughly four years of the regime's reign that comes to over 680 human lives snuffed out per day.  I suppose "snuffed out" is too gentle a term, as most of them came to a far more unpleasant and violent end, but that's a story still to come. Let's just say for now that ammunition for a quick kill was both expensive and in short supply, so they used whatever they could lay their hands on to do the job.

Although it's a tourist stop the current government endorses visitors to see - if for no other reason than to say "never again" - it was, naturally, a very somber and quiet place.  

For the boorish there were signs like the one above, advising visitors to show respect for the carnage wrought there by refraining from joking and laughing. I personally saw nothing but groups of somber folks - Western tourists, but also small school groups - moving slowly and quietly from room to room and display to display, each more disturbing then the last when you followed the course suggested by the arrows on the walls. 

Next we'll see some photos used by the Khmer Rouge to document the people who passed through Tuol Sleng, and then in the next post we'll move on to the actual processes themselves.

One young man who passed through the Tuol Sleng interrogation center. May he be at peace.


Anonymous said...

I went to S21 when I was in Cambodia in 2009, along with Choeung Ek. I found it very moving. What I saw brought tears to my eyes. To think that Cambodian's did this to other Cambodians. But worse than that, the world stood by and did nothing until Vietnam intervened and over threw the Khmer Rouge. You used the term 'never again', nice words, nice thought, but it will happen again and again, humans are like that. Look at Syria, the world is standing by again and doing nothing.


khunbaobao said...

I perhaps ought to have said "take note, that this may never happen again" - but of course you're right... such brutality is happening somewhere even as we read this. Perceived slights, differences in faiths, disagreements over property and money, etc. Horror on this scale is, thankfully, not quite as widespread, but as long as there are humans there will probably be other cases of senseless slaughter such as this.

It brought tears to my eyes, too.

Thank you for commenting.

Anonymous said...

It's certainly a place that everyone should see. I went to the prison but not the Killing Fields site - it was just too much. I imagine it's the same experience as going to Auschwitz - no we haven't learned any lessons from history.