Our trip into Cambodia took us first to Siem Reap but it seems more important to talk about Phnom Penh and the Genocide Museum and Center. Warning, this is a long post.
To start with honesty, I really didn’t want to go to either. Once upon a time, I had visited a castle in Europe (about 12 years old), and they talked of all the torture that had taken place there and it greatly affected me. To think about going to a place where 20,000 people had been tortured and eventually killed sounded like the description of a place I wanted to avoid.
Where James is typically cool to go along with my plans, I knew this place was important to him and frankly, it was important in general, so even though I would have preferred to avoid it, I went. Unfortunately, I also went pretty ignorant about the Khmer Rouge’s Regime so I had constant questions that were not fully answered until the next day.A tuk tuk took us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, previously Security Office 21 (“S.21”). We arrived about 4pm, the sky grey and full of clouds. We purchased our two dollar tickets in a sad little structure, that acted as a ticket booth and entered into a rather nondescript courtyard. Towering grey building dominated the view inside, each with three floors each. The first sign we saw was in front of a plot of graves that explained 14 corpses had been found in Building A, one female. They were the last victims before the Khmer Rouge had fled from there.
The grounds had been a primary and high school but were taken over by the Khmer Rouge and encircled with an additional fence of barbed wire. The purpose of the facility was to detain, interrogate, torture and, in some cases, kill those accused of leading uprisings against Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge.
We walked the few feet to enter that Building A, walls grey, paint worn away, showing every one of its 51 years (built in 1962).The room we entered just had a single bed frame, with a sign directing not to touch, and an ammunition box on top of the bed, next to shackles. The furthest wall had a single window in eight sections, a source of light to illuminate the tan walls, worn and black at the bottom where it met the stained checkered floor of no-longer white and tan tiles. A photo on the wall showed the same bed with a corpse on it, one of the last ones found there. I didn’t take a photo of that picture nor did I spend much time looking at it.
I found my entire time at S21 was kept at arm’s length. I didn’t wish to submerge myself in all that occurred there. Even now, I really don’t want to be writing this, thinking perhaps I should write about the beauty of Siam Reap. But this is important. I looked at James’ pictures to confirm the image on the wall and notice other details I hadn’t before. For instance, the bed’s metal back board had a rising sun over water on it, something I hadn’t seen or photographed, my angle being more from the door where he’d moved into the room. I continually didn’t engage with the museum. And much of the journey, I repeated my mantra over and over and over again, as if it could shield me from these rooms and their history. I found that an old superstition from my youth, holding your breath as you pass a graveyard, reappeared. Walking up the dimly lit stairs, I’d hold my breath, not wanting to take in what might be enclosed by those walls. I’d move quickly to the open hallways and refilling my lungs with air. Silly, I know but kept occurring, giving me a sense of control over the feeling of helplessness to be among the history.
The rooms in Building A continued like the first, some larger with just bed frames remaining and stained floors, the entire focus of the building was to detain and interrogate the “high officials”. It seemed ironic that the thing most out of place to me should be the black board. I knew it was a place of detention but the fact that it had been a school was harder to accept. I kept focusing on the grey sky as James went in and out of the rooms on the other floors. I held my breath down the three floors again and moved into the courtyard for the next building.
To get to Building B though, you must pass the sign that labels the structure “The Gallows”. An innocuous enough looking wooden frame with three large pots out-of-place beneath it. A sign explained that it was once used for student exercises but had been changed to be used for interrogation. Prisoners hands were tied behind their back and hung upside down until they lost consciousness, at which point they were dunked into filthy water to regain consciousness and interrogation continued. I quickly moved past, brain off, and into the building.
Building B contained room after room of the victims photos. The Khmer Rouge had meticulously documented each prisoner. Their photos appeared on standing boards so that both side could be used. There were head shots of men, women and children. The men and teen boys with their hands tied behind their back in the photos. Some looking defiant in their photos, but mostly their faces were lifeless or sad. I tried to acknowledge each board but spent the most time looking at the photos of children, wondering what they must have been thinking, what kind of knowledge they would have had about being there. This beautiful baby girl sticks out, maybe two or three years old, chubby cheeked and expressive eyebrows. It was terrible to think that she would be destroyed like the other children on the board, and the other women, and the other men.
A large container held the clothing of the victims, the layers of clothes probably having compressed over the year so the box was no longer full. A photo close to it showed a photo with a mound of clothes and the descriptor “Pile Clothes of the Victims”. I only remember this by James’ photos, yet another place I didn’t give my full attention, the tangible object to hard to consider.
Moving into another room was a display of photos from the Killing Fields and the skulls unearthed, lined up for counting, row after row. In the same room were stacks of the shackles used to subdue the prisoners in the mass detention rooms. And none of my photos remind of the wall of photos of the emaciated prisoners, so skinny, near death or deceased, photos I did not wish to take back with me.
We moved upstairs to a room containing information on the Battle of Okinawa, as if one tragic history was not enough and boards on the “typhoon of steel”. I could only focus on this history of the Khmer Rouge though and moved on to the boards about the leaders. Their faces were each scratched out by previous visitors. The text of their history remained though: the village they were born in, where they studied (many in France), their careers prior to the rise to power in the Khmer Rouge and then the role they played. Below the board was a laminated sheet, text in Cambodian, with their faces remaining – most in color, old men from years passing after the end of the Khmer Rouge.
Throughout the building was more information and then copies of testimonials from a few of the prisoners. I was struck by a particular picture that reminds me of a friend I’d met over here. It pulled me in and I read his testimony. The Khmer Rouge had tortured until people agreed that they were part of the CIA or KGB. It’s amazing how many CIA agents they found in Cambodia, truly amazing, as in, not possible. As the regime had continued, Pol Pot’s paranoia had risen and enemies were found everywhere though. I’d read the testimony but the details now escape me, just a general history of the man, his village, his life. Other of the testimonies blend in my mind, some agreeing that they had been trying to recruit people against the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps the details were lost to me, for again, my focus was so shallow here, as if by not paying attention I could ignore this history. My photos were limited and where I typically take copious amounts of notes, I didn’t take one here, very unlike “me”. Once again braved the dark stairs and back into the courtyard, walking to Building C.
The third Building, Building C, had not been changed since its time under the regime and was still covered with barbed wire. A sign explained it was so prisoners would not try to jump and commit suicide. The first floor was single cells made of brick, the next floor cells made of wood, and third for mass detention. The cells were about 4.5 or 5 feet across, depending on the cell. Some had windows but not all. A grossly cut hole in the wall lead into the next room of cells, so the entire floor could be moved through without leaving the inner rows between the cells. We went to the second floor and I peeked but didn’t go into the row of wooden cells. I was quickly getting filled with all I was willing to take in from that place. The top floor had open rooms remaining and one dedicated to information about the ongoing trials.
Only one high ranking official of the Khmer Rouge has been brought to trial and sentence. The rest remain in custody with multiple lawyers. I didn’t understand how this could be after 30 years but a final border gave a bit more details. Each summary of the officials listed the website for more case details: http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/caseload. Brain was full though.
The final Building, “D”, had more boards of pictures and then the chair used for detainees to be photographed, as well as the measuring stick for their height. The walls held paintings depicting what rooms looked like or other actions that took place there. One image showed four rows of prisoners, lying down, feet touching, shackled. A smaller fifth row by the side of the room held a single set of prisoners. The next room held the torture devices, various methods of near drowning.
The final room on the first floor had a room of bones. Skulls were displayed on pedestals around the room; two cabinets were full of rows of skulls and large bones; and another small cabinet appeared to be full of smaller bones. A small golden stupa sat across the back wall in between the cabinets of bones. It was decorated with but a few lotuses in a vase and incense, next to a box that collected donations.
The second floor contained more history on the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power, with pictures of them arriving to Phnom Penh in armored tanks and finally the good news of when they were driven from power on January 7th, 1979. The sign’s last line said
“Cambodian government developed the country from bare hand because Khmer Rouge destroyed almost everything (infrastructure, religions, believes, media, education, etc).”
Another sign explained “the victims arrested in this security office were Khmer Rouge cadres, intellectual people, engineers, students, and foreign victims too.” Earlier James had summarized that the Khmer Rouge had rounded up everyone who was not a farmer or peasant. If your hands were too clean then you were suspect. Doctors, teachers, monks, people of intellect were destroyed. It was scary to think of healthcare professionals and teachers (my family is full of them) being murdered for being too educated. It was terrifying, in fact.
The final room gave me clarification on why after 30 years, the heads of the Khmer Rouge had not seen trial and the answer listed was “geopolitics”, citing Vietnam, China, Thailand, and the US as part of the blocks. Likewise, explaining that even the United Nations had voted to give the Khmer Rouge, in 1979, a seat at the UN (they were still seen as the ruling party then). However, since 2003, a world court, called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (or ECCC) exists for these trials, in cooperation with the UN. Concern remains that the officials may pass away, as Pol Pot and Ta Mok did before ever seeing trial. Many officials are now in their 80s. An earlier sign explained the courts recognize that S.21 held 12,273 prisoners and instead of the 7 survivors that has been a figure used for years, 179 prisoners were released from S.21 from 1975 to 1978 and an additional 23 after Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
We left, passing one more sign on the way back to the entrance we had used. It introduced the museum, providing another brief history of the place. I read it quickly and snapped a picture, my brain far too full of this information and needing to be outside of those barbed gates.
I will write another post about the Killing Fields as I engaged more with that place and unlike this museum, took my standard copious amount of notes. Having been to the Killing Fields, I can say I was glad that we went to S.21 first. It provided the context of the people whose life’s journey was ended at the Killing Fields.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a witness to the information for as their leaflet said,
“…making the crimes of inhuman regime of Khmer rough public plays crucial role in prevention new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on Earth.”
Anywhere on Earth indeed.
More pictures from the day:
What has been a place that has greatly affected you?