Heart of Darkness

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge
[A middle-age Khmer women walks past the row cells at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum]

Tuol Sleng was a high school before the Khmer Rouge set up a detention center here in May 1976, and it has been open as a genocide museum since 1980. During its life as a prison and torture center more than 10,000 adults and anywhere up to 2,000 children were processed through it, spending their final days being degraded and tortured before being taken to the Killing Fields outside town to be murdered and interred in mass graves.

The details of what happened there are horrific, a reminder of what happens when a regime dehumanizes its subjects. As we entered we passed the classrooms on the ground floor, which were used as interrogation rooms. The doors are locked, but looking through the windows we could see the steel framed beds, car batteries, and iron clubs that were used to dole out punishment to “enemies of the Khmer state.”

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge
[One of the larger cells at S-21 that housed political prisoners of the Khmer Rouge .]

On the upper levels, as I walked through the tiny brick cells where more important prisoners were held, the crooked walls seemed to close in on me. I was overcome with claustrophobia, fear and the desire to cry at the uselessness of it all. I’d never experienced claustrophobia before. I wanted to flee and gulp down fresh air under the blue sky.

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge
[The frame of Khmer women and her son through the barbwire fences of S-21]

Despite this I was drawn back in. I wanted to see everything that S-21 had to offer. I wanted to try to understand what had gone wrong here.

But at the same time I felt uneasy. Here I was, a relatively wealthy individual visiting a third world country still suffering from the consequences of the very events whose notorious landmarks I was visiting as a tourist.

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge

By the time we got to the three rooms whose walls were lined with photos of the victims I was numb. Looking at the faces of thousands of Cambodian men, women and children I searched for something that might tell me their story. The Khmer Rouge had been meticulous in keeping records of their acts, including these photos of each of their victims, which now act as a chilling reminder that real people suffered and died here.

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge
[Defaced and Graffitized portraits of former Khmer Rouge soldiers on the walls of the Toul Sleng Genocide museum. Even after 20 years many of the Khmer Rouge have not been brought to justice for their war crimes]

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge

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Deepika Patil said...

"... I searched for something that might tell me their story..."

Simply, heart-wrenching!!

Anamika said...

it's weird na, when a legacy of horror becomes a tourist destination? had felt the same way when visited the death railway and war cemetery in kanchanaburi near the river kwai. people were smiling and posing for photographs and i wanted them all to STOP!

on a brighter note: saw your piece in HT Cafe too...good work!

methodactor said...

Phenomenally stirring piece. I had always wanted to know more about the Khymer Rouge. Thanks for sharing the experience.

Brown Girls said...

Hey. I want to say 'great piece' but then feel ashamed. This is very disturbing. Very sensitively written/captured; sometimes travel-sy pieces can go over to the other side and become tourist sopt-y. This one obviously does not. Great stuff. (Sorry, am I sounding pretentious?)

harini calamur said...

--eerie & creepy and gets you to thank what ever powers that be that one was brought up in relative peace and calm !

Anonymous said...

My second post on Pol Pot's gang. Feel very strongly about those guys, coz i have seen the same museum that you treaded.



Momma Bear said...

i went here in 2003. Painful realities of the suffering in this world.