In contrast to its sunshine and smiles, Cambodia’s recent history under the control of the Khmer Rouge is nothing short of horrific.
Tuol Sleng, originally a high school in downtown Phnom Penh, was transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979. It’s estimated that close to 20,000 people were imprisoned here; only seven are known to have survived. Those who did not die during periods of torture were taken outside of Phnom Penh and beaten to death as bullets were too precious and costly to use to kill prisoners.
Like all maniacal regimes, the Khmer Rouge aided historians by keeping detailed documentation about its prisoners, including photographs, biographies, and details from the torture-induced confessions. The original photographs and negatives were separated from the dossiers when the prison was discovered in 1979-1980 by the Vietnamese, so the identity of the people in the photographs remain largely anonymous today. Photos of their faces appear to peer out from behind bars as you look at the prison from the outside in.
Another exhibition in the museum includes stories of loved ones taken in the night, never to return. One’s fate didn’t seem to depend much on one’s affiliation with the Khmer Rouge. From the stories that are told here, no one was safe in an environment of manufactured paranoia. Absolutely everyone, including high-level members of the Khmer Rouge, was susceptible to being called a spy and disposed of accordingly.
Although much smaller, Tuol Sleng reminded us of our visit to Auschwitz in Poland years ago. The care taken by both the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis to document victims and their death is particularly disturbing, as it shows the extent of organization and planning behind such massacres.
Visits like this are sobering and do not fit into a traditional holiday itinerary. But they are helpful in trying to comprehend a country in its historical context – and to remember that atrocities like this still occur today.