Warning: This is a long post with some fairly graphic reflections. It was hard to see and harder to reflect on, with my further comments on the difficulty of this at the end. All the same, I still wanted to communicate the nature and the history of a place that affected me in such a way.
When we arrived at our homestay I saw the large vases, waist-high, that would serve as our washing and tooth-brushing stations for the night. A bottle of hand cleanser was perched above a piece of timber across the top – a rudimentary bathroom shelf. Despite the village surroundings and our distance from Phnom Penh, I still couldn’t take my mind off the purpose of these same water vessels in the “S21” compound, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Back there, these vases were used to gather the excrement of high-value prisoners, forced to toilet in their solitary chambers. Once the vessels were full, they were used for torture; the heads of prisoners dunked down into the filth as a means for information. Drown in the waste of others, or give up the names and locations of the people you knew and loved.
The vases still stand exactly where they were used less than forty years ago. The blood still stains the yellow and white tiled floors and the air hangs heavy with the pain of thousands of tortured souls.
Security Office 21 was created in the April of 1975, converted from a high school under the orders of Pol Pot at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime. The buildings were used for interrogation, torture and killing, after confession, for the three years and eight months when Cambodia suffered under the atrocities of the French-educated Cambodian communist party trying to change the balance of power in the country. The goal was to break down Cambodia into a classless society working purely towards agriculture, with the middle class driven out of the cities and onto rural farms under the pretence of American warfare. They were forced to farm unattainable crops from rice fields across the country. Of the 7 million strong population, 1.7 million were victims of genocide, while I further 1.3 million citizens died of exhaustion, starvation, malnutrition or disease in these times of hardship. Almost half the population were wiped out and so many of those who survived continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and a host of other illnesses and injuries. The Khmer Rouge regime crippled the country and left behind a weakened, uneducated people in need of help.
Mass torture, murder and genocide destroyed the middle-class population, with guards and soldiers monitoring letters to find those people who could read and write. Family members were threatened and tortured to give up the names and locations of those who had any semblance of education in order to avoid anyone being able to overthrow the power of the regime. They were hunted down and murdered without question. Only those who could show some sort of usefulness to the regime survived, including artists who were used to sculpt statues dedicated to those who had taken power – these people made up the seven who survived the chambers of S21, while nearly twenty thousand other lives perished within those walls.
The Khmer Rouge had been an active party before the killing regime, and in fact, the supporters of the old practices were the first to be wiped out while the new leaders recruited children and adolescents to do their dirty work. They knew these young souls would follow commands without question – placing weapons in their hands and orders in their ears. There was no true awareness of the full impact of these young peoples’ actions; they simply did as they were told, torturing and killing their own people, pulling apart their country, all in the name of their leader, Pol Pot, whose own name was made up to communicate the “Political Potential” of the country. To them, there was novelty in the holding of weaponry, in having some sort of power over prisoners and having a role in the changes across the country. They knew of nothing else and now these people live on, with these memories in their hearts. And it was in this complex, S21, where those of the highest value were kept for information, where these young soldiers would scrape tallied numbers into the walls in order to keep track of their torture schedule in the absence of the education required to read and understand the Romanised numbers on the chambers. This was where nearly twenty thousand people died, each face photographed on entry to the complex and right before their death. Now that the floors have been cleaned and emptied of broken, battered, tortured limbs, their empty eyes stare from the photographs that line the walls, most with a number draped around their neck as a marker of who was next to go.
Their blood still stains the grout between the tiles. The rough metal furniture stands in the otherwise empty rooms of the solitary prisoners. Torture implements and shackles are stacked up against the walls of the mass chambers and the barbed wire still remains around the building prisoners were placed in if they became a suicide threat. Images of the dead overwhelm the spaces while the reflections of visitors flicker like ghosts in the glass of the picture frames at every turn. The pain is inescapable, the weight of their stares question how their own people could commit such horrendous atrocities. The fear is unimaginable and I can’t even recount all the ways that prisoners were tortured – it is too painful. The country was torn apart: their people slaughtered for their strengths, children pulled from the arms of their mothers and their small heads crushed against the brick walls of buildings, swung by their feet, right in front of their mothers’ eyes until their limbs hung limp and they cried no more. The actions are sickening, the stories wrench deeper than in your heart and you feel more and more ill as you progress through the corridors. You remind yourself that this was less than forty years ago, and that these kinds of things are still happening in other countries – and that, I think, is most frightening of all.It took me a very long time to be able to write about this place. In fact, it took me a whole two months. I’ve put off piecing together the narratives of my trip simply because I knew that this was the next in line. I couldn’t face the horror again; the haunting eyes of all the young women forced into that one chair for their photographs, hair roughly hacked off in the same short bob, hollow eyes staring into the camera. The story of the wife of a minister, with her baby on her lap, continues to haunt me whenever I see the photos of the rooms and the halls of faces. I cannot remove the images of the gaunt, sinewy bodies of men, women and even monks splayed across the floors of the chambers, semi-naked, with their blood seeping across the tiles, limbs contorted at impossible angles. I could not bring myself to believe that a human being had the capability to do this to one of their own, despite my understanding of the psychology of military orders throughout Hitler’s regime. This place, this museum, is terrifying in every sense of the word, and more so because it happened within this lifetime. Our guide for the day, a baby at the time of the regime, is believed within his community to be a reincarnated victim, born with the scars of rope marks already upon his wrists. The pain is still in the eyes of the people, in the stories they share of their sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts and parents lost to the regime. This is a very difficult place to visit and an even more difficult place to reflect on – if you go, make sure you are able to cope with the emotions. It is not too late to help the people of Cambodia get back on their feet; every tourist they can welcome into the country helps them that little bit more. Even if it is foreign income or charity, it might be just enough to help the people of Cambodia to help themselves to a better life than that of their horrific past. Lastly, I need to mention that these photos have been kindly donated by my friend Tammy, as I had a memory-card problem on this day and was unable to take my own. I want to give her my thanks, both for sharing her photos and for having the strength to take them during our time in the compound.