Travel Report: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
December 2015. It wasn’t all fun and games during my stay in Phnom Penh. Somewhere along the way my travel mate and I knew we had to stop by Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to learn more about Cambodia’s dark history. The atrocities carried out here by The Khmer Rouge in the 1970s were unspeakable, and while it was surely nobody’s idea of a fun morning, I felt we owed it to the victims to see the place, hear their stories and leave a silent prayer.
Located right in the heart of the city, this was one of at least 150 Khmer Rouge torture centers dotted around the country between 1975-1979.
Visitors move around the complex with the help of an excellent audio guide tour. Resting on one of the stone benches in the leafy courtyard, I could only imagine the extent of the horror when Pol Pot’s security forces stormed into this former high school in 1975. They then quickly transformed it into the Cambodia’s largest detention and torture centre.
The school’s new occupiers transformed the classrooms into prison cells and interrogation rooms like this one. Inmates were typically subjected to interviews that went on for hours. This usually involved torturing them until they admitted to whatever crimes they’d been accused of.
Details of the actual torture carried out are too sickening to go into. And believe me it takes a strong stomach to get through some of the stories audio tour’s stories. Having signed their confessions, inmates then found themselves transferred out of the city to Choeung Ek Killing Fields.
This is a cellblock in the infamous Building C, a large living quarter that housed hundreds of prisoners. Guards shackled inmates to iron bars and routinely checked and tightened them every morning.
Later on, as the insanity and paranoia of The Khmer Rouge reached boiling point, many of the guards became prisoners themselves. Their new replacements then tortured and killed them.
A few foreign nationals found themselves caught up in the Khmer Rouge genocide. Cambodian soldiers caught New Zealander Kerry Hamill (bottom right) while sailing in Cambodian waters. Consequently, he ended up in Tuol Sleng where guards accused him of being a spy before torturing and killing him. During his interrogation, Hamill responded to questions about who he was spying for with answers such as ”Colonel Sanders!” This remained his defiant approach right to the bitter end. The full story of the yachtsmen is told in this absorbing article from Post Magazine.
This compound overview of Tuol Sleng somehow felt even more depressing than the museum’s most gruesome exhibitions. Maybe it was the ordinariness of the buildings or the quiet prettiness of its peaceful grounds. Apparently only seven people managed to avoid execution from the twenty-seven thousand that came here.
Finally the centre closed in early 1979 when the Vietnamese Army liberated Phnom Penh. Two of the survivors, Mr. Chum Mey and Mr. Bou Meng are still alive today. Furthermore, they often visit to share their experiences and sign copies of their books.
For more info on my adventures in and around the city, have a leaf through my other reports from Phnom Penh.
Like these? Then why not have a look at my articles from across Cambodia.
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