Of the 17,000 men and women (and several thousand more children) who passed through the Tuol Sleng detention centre (or S-21), just twelve lived to tell the tale. The notorious prison, converted from a Phnom Penh school, became the hub of the Khmer Rouge’s deadly political purification, where people accused of sedition and crimes against the state were interred, interrogated, tortured, and eventually either killed, or transported to one of the nearby Killing Fields and executed alongside hundreds of thousands more. This number would eventually include many high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials and their families, themselves, caught in Pol Pot’s paranoid purges.
Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese army in January 1979. Thirty years on, and yesterday the very first trial of a Khmer Rouge leader opened in a special UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia. Kaing Guak Eav, known to most as ‘Duch’, headed Tuol Sleng prison, also called S-21. A third of the Cambodian population are said to have perished during the brief but genocidal reign of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, in the four years from 1975 to 1979. It’s hard to believe that the country has held itself together for so long, while these crimes go unpunished and families are left without reconciliation or answers. Pol Pot himself died in 1998, under uncertain circumstances while under house arrest by a Khmer Rouge faction.
Tuol Sleng is now a museum honoring the victims of the prison camp, a memorial in much the same vein that the death camps of Nazi Germany remember those who perished in the holocaust. The place itself is a quiet and reflective location, with the stark pre-communist school-blocks surrrounding an open courtyard filled with benches and frangipani trees, and the bustle of Phnom Penh feels strangely distant. The cells have been left largely as they were found. When the Vietnamese liberators were drawn to the prison by the stench of rotting flesh, they found a dozen corpses still shackled to their beds, executed as their captors fled. The photographs they took as evidence are graphic displays of the coarse brutality, still mounted in the cells they were taken in.
Like many places where evil has blossomed, there remains a lingering disquiet over the compound. The mementos and photographs hail back a chilling time in history. Subdued voices of visitors passing through echo in hallways where screams and cries must once have thrived. Barred windows and barbed wire lend only the briefest taste of what the inmates must have seen, day after day, as they awaited their turn with the interrogators.
Like the death camps of Germany and eastern France, Tuol Sleng is an important place. Not only does it honor those who died innocently and needlessly before a vicious gang of thugs, but it allows us the space to remember, and on a very shallow level, to connect to the events that took place, in the Orwellian hope that we won’t come back to this place again. Although it’s not my first time visiting a place of atrocities, I found it left a mark on my soul, and stands out as one of the most significant memories of my month travelling in south-east Asia. I would strongly recommend that anybody who passes through Phnom Penh makes a visit to Tuol Sleng a priority. Too much of what we do when we travel is frivolous and petty, but the gravity of remembering the experiences and circumstances our fellow humans have been through is both important, and our responsibility.
1. Cell. Detention cell in Tuol Sleng.
2. A Quiet Place. View of one of the detention blocks, formerly a school building, and the courtyard at Tuol Sleng.
3. Resting Place. An interrogation chamber upstairs in Tuol Sleng.
4. Razor. Coiled wire and, beyond, flowers outside the prison.