Disclaimer: If you are reading this, and are under the age of 18 please read it with an adult. Some of the content is graphic and I’d feel better knowing you read it with a responsible adult.
Our stop in Phnom Penh was really a resting point between Ho Chi Minh and Siem Reap. Also, since Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital we thought it deserved an overnight visit. We arrived around lunchtime and the only plans we had scheduled was to tour the Genocide Killing Fields. What I didn’t know is that the Genocide Museum and the Genocide Killing Fields are located in two different areas of the city. Our tuk-tuk driver for the Killing Fields really helped us to understand what it was like in Cambodia during this horrific time. He told us about the Genocide Museum and encouraged us to visit in order to get a real sense of what the people of Cambodia had to endure forty years ago. So instead of taking the early bus to Siem Reap we used the morning to visit the museum. I’m writing about it in reverse order since it makes more sense to go the museum first.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Prison was a torture center that was used during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979. The building was called Security Prison 21 (S-21) and the Khmer Rouge had over 100 of these prisons during their rule. Another factor that made this place hard to swallow is that it was originally a high school. It looked like a school with normal buildings and classrooms. However, when you go inside the classrooms you see anything but a normal room.
Here’s a little history and backstory to this prison. Pol Pot was a Cambodian revolutionary who was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. Most of us learn about Hitler and the Nazi’s during World War II as a part of our history classes. We learn about the terrible ways Hitler tried to exterminate an entire race. What shocked me about the S-21 Prison is the fact that I never knew anything about it. I don’t have any recollection of ever learning about this in history class. Pol Pot was a totalitarian dictator who had these insane visions of what he wanted his country to become. He had impossible goals and used torture as a means to work his people until they died. At the beginning of his rule, Pol Pot forced the people from the cities out to the country. He had religious leaders, teachers and politicians arrested and killed. He then forced the people from the cities to work in the country harvesting rice and food. He placed high demands on how much food they had to harvest each week. The problem with this is that the city people didn’t have the knowledge or the skills to work in the country. Pol Pot was ruthless and forced these people to work days without food, water or sleep. If anyone complained, tried to escape or formed any kind of uprising they were taken to the one of the security prisons. They didn’t just take the person causing problems; they would take your whole family. Anyone associated with that person was sent to the torture prison. Pol Pot was said to say, “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than let an enemy live by mistake.”
We purchased an audio tour while at the Genocide Museum and the person guiding you through the different buildings starts off by thanking you for visiting this museum. He says that after visiting the S-21 Genocide Museum we will become Story Keepers. This means we will carry the story behind the torture that took place at this prison and share it with as many peopled as possible. This way the story of the lives lost will never be forgotten and hopefully we can prevent any future attempts at genocide.
Outside in the courtyard of the museum, there are fourteen graves that hold the remains of the people who were found tortured to death when S-21 was discovered. This is one of the first things you see when you start your tour. It really sets the tone for what we would learn about this place. The museum has added trees and benches around the gravesites as well as throughout the complex. The purpose for this is so that people can sit out in the sun by the trees and listen to some of the more gruesome information provided by the audio tour.
Prior to entering any building we walked around the outside courtyard. The first sign you see is a list of rules that prisoners saw when arriving at Tuol Sleng. They include statements such as the following:
-You must answer accordingly to my questions.
-Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strict prohibited to contest me.
-You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
-While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
-Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no orders, keep quiet.
-If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many, many lashes of electric wire.
-If you disobey any point of my regulations, you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
The first room you walk into is the room prisoners entered first when they arrived to the prison. First, they had their photo taken and their name and information was documented. Then the prisoners were stripped of all belongings and clothing. Women had their hair cut to chin length. This felt similar to what happened in Germany during World War II at the concentration camps. Both groups were diligent in documentation. After S-21 was discovered, the thousands of photos of prisoners would be used to identify who suffered and died at this place. Family would come from all over Cambodia and spend hours, days, weeks looking at the photos hoping to find their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters or other family in hopes of finding some kind of closure.
The next rooms we walked through were located in a three-story building. You could see how these rooms were once classrooms based on the size. Other than the size, nothing else would indicate that these rooms were once a place of safety and learning for children. Each room had a wire bed without a mattress and iron shackles at each end for feet and for hands. There is also a metal box on the side of the bed. This was the electrical shock unit that was used to give people torture through electricity. Most rooms also had a small desk or table. This was for prisoners to sit down and handwrite their confession. The purpose of the torture was to have prisoners confess to crimes that they supposedly committed against the regime. Prisoners really didn’t commit these crimes (and crimes were usually ridiculous) but after months of torture most were willing to admit they had done anything in order to stop the pain. Even though most of the prisoners captured were Cambodian, there were a few Non-Cambodians. One man who died here was from New Zealand and his name was Kerry George Hamill. He was sailing and got trapped in a storm and ended up in Cambodia. He was caught, sent to the prison, tortured and beaten. He was forced to write a confession, which he eventually did, but even in his last days of life he retained his sense of humor and his sense of self. In his confession, he embedded hidden messages in case his family ever found the forced written letter. He listed Colonel Sanders (from KFC), as one of his superiors, included names of his friends as well as a “Mr. S. Tarr” which was a message to his mother, Esther. I’m listening to this audio tour and seeing photos of Mr. Hamill and you see what torture he endured and I’m in awe of his ability to find light in such a dark place knowing that death was inevitable. I had to take a break at this point and went back outside for a breath of fresh air.
Outside I was greeted by this structure known as the gallows.
The gallows is where prisoners were hung upside down from their feet. The containers underneath were filled with filthy, disgusting smelling water and waste. Prisoners were submerged in the containers until the point of drowning. Then they were lifted out and stayed hanging upside down for more torture. The entire process was repeated for hours. I can only imagine that death might feel welcoming after having to endure these terrible acts. The torture lasted for most of the day. Prisoners were rarely fed and if they did receive nourishment it was usually one spoonful of rice broth. Once a week, prisoners were hosed down while sitting in a room. Then they were left dripping wet on the floor covered with urine and feces for hours. I’m trying to paint a horrific picture for anyone reading this. I walked in these rooms and my stomach turned in each one. I saw splatters and large pools of dried blood in every room and prison cell. I’m a nurse; I see blood every day at work and often times large amounts. But when you know this blood came out of a person that was tortured in unimaginable ways it makes it very hard to breathe.
This building with classrooms had cells created out of these stone/cement blocks. They are the color of adobe and each block has holes in it. I saw these blocks used to make walls in other parts of the city. But after seeing all these cells and the blood inside them I felt this hard pull in the pit of my stomach whenever I saw them elsewhere. One man’s story is shared in the audio tour about his time in S-21. His name was Chum Mey and he is one of twelve survivors of from the Tuol Sleng Prison and is still alive today. On the audio tour, he talks about his pregnant wife and children and how he was forced to watch them die in front of his eyes. While in his cell at night, he had to wear metal shackles on his legs and hands. The guards told him that if he moved and the chains make any noise he would be tortured. Let’s think about this for a minute. Imagine trying to sleep on a hard and dirty floor with your arms and legs tied up to metal bars and chains after an entire day of torture. You hurt in horrible ways and you’re trying to find a way to sleep or rest that doesn’t make the pain any worse but at the same time you know that if you move even one little inch the chains are going to make a sound against the ground and if the guard hears this noise you will be beaten or tortured even longer the next day. That was the reality for these people. Mr. Mey survived only because he had a valuable skill to the Khmer Regime. He was good at repairing machines and when they needed someone to fix a typewriter (so prisoners could type up their final confessions no doubt) he was able to do it. This ultimately saved his life. He was given left over food from the guards to sustain him and his torture sessions became less frequent.
On the outside of this building there was barbed wire added to the hallways. This was added because prisoners threw themselves off the upper floors and died. The guards didn’t want anyone else committing suicide and trying to end their life before Pol Pot had approved their termination. If someone died during torture before Pol Pot had sent word to do so, the guards became prisoners. It was in their best interest to keep people alive during all the torture. One young guard described his story of learning the art of torture from Pol Pot himself. He taught him how to cause hours of agony and pain to a human without letting the person die.During my time at S-21, I couldn’t help but ask how any other human being could participate in the torture that took place here. It’s worse than barbaric. It’s inhumane and evil all rolled into one. It wasn’t one person that did this but hundreds of guards who tortured thousands of people. I saw photos of torture techniques that included using big bugs that were placed inside wounds or a women’s genital area to cause pain long after the torture ended. Even in my worst nightmares I couldn’t make up some of the things these people concocted.
They had “nurses” or medical staff at the prison. A prisoner was taken to the infirmary if they were about to die so that the nurse could save them for the next days torture session. A nurse shared a story during the audio tour and said that if anyone died while caring for them she was punished and tortured. She said how it proved next to impossible to save a prisoner when the only thing she was given to use was salt. She was instructed to pour salt into the wounds of the tortured to help them heal and stop the bleeding. Salt. Can you imagine the agony? She said she heard screams that were worse than a wounded animal dying.
After a few hours, Super Nel and I had finished the basic audio tour of the museum. There are other areas that are included in your admission and the audio tour can walk you through them. However, our spirits and hearts had seen too much and it was time to leave. On our way out of the courtyard I saw a table with a man sitting behind it. He was shaking hands of people leaving and talking to visitors. When I walked up to his table, I read the sign in front of it. It was Mr. Chum Mey, one of the twelve survivors of the prison. Of the twelve survivors there are seven that are still alive. I found out that almost everyday that the museum is open a survivor is present to greet visitors and thank them for coming to learn about the history of Tuol Sleng. I shook the hand of Mr. Mey and let me tell you that I am not the kind of person who finds herself without words very often. However, I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had a dozen of things I wanted to say,3 but the only words I could croak out were “thank you.” And I don’t even know if those were the right worlds. But Mr. Mey held my hand, looked into my eyes and it was as if he knew what I wanted to tell him. He patted my hand, squeezed it and nodded. He has a book called Survivor: The Triump of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide. One day, I’m going to read it, but my heart was so heavy I couldn’t find the strength to start it.
After lunch, Super Nel and I boarded the bus for our six-hour ride to Siem Reap. Something about the Toul Sleng Museum and Phnom Penh in general had changed something inside me. The entire bus ride I felt dark and just really sad. I couldn’t shake it; no matter what I did I had this hard and heavy place in the pit of my stomach. I had to do some serious soul searching to find my mojo again. And even with I found it, a part of me hasn’t forgotten Tuol Sleng and the suffering that happened there. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw inside the walls of a school and that’s okay. It’s made better off for knowing the evil actions that were taken towards innocent people. It’s made me more determined then ever to be a better person, a better nurse, and a better friend. Our world needs more good things and good memories from others. That’s what I’m going to take from this experience. I will do my best to remember every face from the photos in those rooms. This experience made me fall in love with the Cambodian people. They know the true meaning of perseverance and resilience like nothing I have ever seen before.
*I wish we had more photos, but most of the rooms at the museum have restrictions on taking photos. There were people ignoring the signs saying “Out of respect, please no photography,” but it just didn’t seem right to join in. If you’d like to see any photos please visit the museum’s website and you can see some of the restricted photo areas.*