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Posted by Jessica on Feb 16, 2006
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

When we first started planning our trip, we knew there were two main reasons for visiting Cambodia. First, to visit the mighty Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples located near the town of Siem Reap. And second, to visit a museum called Tuol Sleng located in Phnom Penh.

In the coming weeks, Tim and I will be writing lots about our visit to Angkor Wat and sharing all of the pictures we'll have of that majestic place. I imagine when we get home from our trip we will still be sharing stories and pictures from our time visiting many of the temples. But beyond this entry, I do not think we will be writing more about Tuol Sleng. I don't think we'd be capable of it emotionally.


Tuol Sleng was formerly known as Tuol Svay Prey High School. In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge emptied the capitol Phnom Penh, they transformed a place of learning into a place of horror. Tuol Svay Prey High School became the largest detention and torture center in the country, and its name was changed to Security Prison S-21 or simply S-21.

There are debates about exactly how many people were forced through the doors of S-21 between 1975 and 1979. The most common number I've seen is 17,000. And that was just at S-21. The Khmer Rouge had another 200-some Security Prisons scattered all throughout poor Cambodia, many like S-21 also in former schools.

Today, Tuol Sleng or S-21 is a museum where visitors to Cambodia can bear witness to the terrible tragedy that befell this beautiful country. It is not a visit for the faint of heart, and it is not a visit I will ever repeat. The days following our visit to S-21, I couldn't bring myself to walk within two blocks of the museum, let alone enter its doors again.

We had been in Phnom Penh for 9 days and we still hadn't visited S-21 yet. We knew we had to visit it (I feel you really can't visit Cambodia without going there), but we kept stalling. But eventually we couldn't avoid it any longer, and we visited early in the morning on our last Thursday in Phnom Penh.

It was the first time for either Tim or myself visiting a place like S-21. The closest I had ever come was visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Granted, they had some genuine artifacts from the Holocaust and the visit was incredibly moving, but I now know that it doesn't come close to recreating the real thing. You can't recreate horror.


We arrived at the same time as a large tour, and neither of us were prepared to walk around with people talking loudly and taking pictures of everything. (You would be surprised at the number of times we've read accounts of tourists who pose for pictures in some of the torture rooms.) And so we sat inside the entrance for a while on a bench and waited for them to pass.

Tim and I, on the advice of one of the lovely readers of this website, had decided to have a guided tour of the museum. Although you can visit S-21 without a guide, it was important to us to hear the stories of the prison from a Cambodian. We knew it wouldn't make our visit emotionally easier though.

Our guide was a 40 year old woman who had the face of someone much older. Even though she probably gives a tour a handful of times a day, her voice was shaky when she led Tim and I to the first room in the museum. We learned that she had been 7 or 8 years old when the Khmer Rouge forced the population out of Phnom Penh. Because her family had lived in the southeast section of the city, they were forced to march for several weeks to the southeast of Cambodia, near the border with Vietnam.

She spoke quietly and matter of factly. I suppose there is no way to dress-up the words that go with the sentence, "And this is one of the rooms they tortured in." There are no words to dress-up the ways in which people were tortured in that room. And there are no words to dress-up the fact that the metal framed bed you are now standing next to is the same metal framed bed shown in the picture on the wall with a tortured and murdered person on it. There are no words to make that better, there are no words that make you feel comfortable standing in that room. There are no words that describe the gasp in your throat as she points to the picture to show a bend in the frame of the bed, and then points to the bend in the frame of the bed next to you, inches from you, to show it is the same bed. There are no words to describe what it is like to see spots of dried blood on that bed and on the floor.

Room after room we heard the stories of the lives who passed through S-21 and never appeared again. One of the most difficult parts emotionally is when you reach the pictures of former prisoners and their guards. The Khmer Rouge were sickeningly meticulous in their documentation of prisoners and they would take pictures of a prisoner when they first arrived to S-21 and after their tortured death as well. I could barely look at any of the later photos. In fact, most of the time I averted my eyes. But it was the former pictures, the pictures of the prisoners when they first arrived, that hurt the most. In those photos I could see the faces of the Cambodia that Tim and I have fallen in love with. In those photos I could see the faces of the friends that we have made during our time here.


There's a book about this time period in Cambodia with the title First They Killed My Father. I haven't read the book, but the title, understandably, always catches my eye. But I never thought that in my entire life I would hear someone utter those same words to me.

In one of the rooms of S-21 there's a map showing all of the torture prisons as well as their corresponding killing fields. (The killing fields are where those prisoners who didn't die while at the prison were taken to be killed. Hundreds of these mass burial sites are spread throughout Cambodia.) Our guide stopped us in front of the map to show the path her family was forced to march.

"First they killed my father," she said, "and then they killed my brother and then my sister."

She and her mother escaped to Vietnam and didn't return until the majority of the Khmer Rouge were gone.


One of the most challenging things for any visitor to S-21 is its setting. Anyone who takes a bus ride through Cambodia will see the typical-looking style of a Cambodian school. You recognize their one or two story design, the cement blocks, the chipping paint, the skinny bars on the windows. You'll see the kids in their white shirts and blue pants or skirts playing in the school yard and walking into their classrooms. And so when you walk through the front gates of the Tuol Sleng museum you can instantly recognize it was once a school. It was once a place where the kids used to play and learn.

If the visit to S-21 wasn't already horrible enough, looking at the schools that you pass after the visit can become very difficult when you reflect on the fact that something horrific was housed in a place of learning.

A week after our visit to the Tuol Sleng museum, Tim and I had another experience with a school in Cambodia, a school that was nearly identical looking to S-21. But our experience in that school is one that will make us smile for many years to come: we taught English to several classes of Cambodian students over a few days time in the small town of Kratie.

To say that thoughts of S-21 didn't pass through our minds while we taught our students would be a lie. They did. There was no way our eyes could miss the similarities between the rooms we were teaching in and the rooms that people died in at S-21.

But there was also no way our eyes could miss the wonderful mix of students in front of us: outgoing, shy, adorable, precocious, intelligent, and so absolutely eager to learn. To know a country may be to know its past, but to see its future in the eyes of its children is equally, if not more so, important.

One of the schools we've passed on a bus journey was called "Bright Future School." And after meeting and teaching our students in Kratie, it's hard for me to picture anything else for Cambodia.

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

An Introduction to Cambodia

An Introduction to Cambodia

Five Tips for Enjoying Cambodia

Five Tips for Enjoying Cambodia

Klaus-Spotting

Klaus-Spotting

Shana
February 17, 2006 at 1:29am
*tears* what a testament to your own spirit, becoming the positive force of change. beautifully written… your goodwill and spirit that you're taking every place you visit is really… beautiful beyond borders.
Carried away
February 17, 2006 at 2:06am
Now I'm really shivering. I truly wonder if I could survive such a visit without shutting off my brain.

I'm glad you had the opportunity to work at the school. You're right, understanding the history is very important, but believing in the future is more so.

KerryGirl
February 17, 2006 at 10:58am
Wow! I don't know if I would of been able to emotionally handle the museum, but I too believe that in order to fully understand a country you must understand its history. Thankfully despite it's dark past the future looks very bright indeed for Cambodia, and part of me wonders if your Hegehoggy spirts have enchanted the place. I cannot wait for you to come home and tell me more stories, but make sure you don't show me the spider pics. ;)

I love you two more than you'll ever know! --– Magz

MoonUnit_Polka
February 17, 2006 at 1:05pm
God. Visiting the Holocaust Museum in DC – which was very emotional for me – would be my only basis for comparison, and – as you said – it's not a very accurate/hands-on representation of what actually happened. I cannot even begin to image the emotional impact of a place like Tuol Sleng…

(Very interesting entry, by the way. I love how both you and Tim go well beyond "Today, we did this…"-type accounts and provide so much historical background in your stories.)

Philsie
February 17, 2006 at 2:13pm
hug wang do…that what i said before
other jess
February 17, 2006 at 3:07pm
The book I mentioned in an earlier comment had a chapter on S-21 and the author's experience visiting there. Reading that, and your entry makes my whole body just stop, breath held, – to try to understand what happens to people to allow them to do this kind of thing to other people. And then how do the people who live through times like this keep on going.
scott
April 18, 2006 at 5:46pm
s-21 is a harsh place to visit.the pictures of kids that you see knowing that none of them survived is heartbreaking.as an ex soldier i consider myself quite hard,but on my return journey to cambodia I wont be going back to s21.
only 7 people alive when prison was liberated.
loved cambodia but that was too disturbing

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