Some people ask me about our trip to Cambodia and whether we were confronted a lot with the cruel part of its history. Everywhere in Cambodia you will encounter evidence of this terrible period. You can escape it by closing your eyes. But closing your eyes to me equals denial.
History should and cannot be denied. As much as the Cambodian people we have to learn from what happened and value the importance of hope. Hope that this will never happen again.
Maybe you know what happened in Cambodia. During the gruesome reign of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) between one and two million Cambodians were killed: a quarter of the total population at that time. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime tried to create a purely based agrarian society and all people with the slightest sign of intellict were seen as a traitor. These innocent people were arrested, interrogated and killed. Most of them were killed at the so-called Killing Fields, like Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh.
Interrogations took place in prisons. This is the story of the Tuol Svay Pray High School that was transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21); hardly anyone survived from this place… The former school is now known as Tuol Sleng and has been turned into a museum.
In an earlier post called Texture of a good travel life I wrote about why we travel with our children: “The world inspires but it’s important to know its truth. The world’s truth can bring us to tears or make us smile. We want our children to encounter different cultures and people early in life. We think it’s important that our children know the truth and understand people’s hope for a better life.”
That’s why our family headed for Tuol Sleng in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It was a tough visit. But I am so glad and proud that we did it.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng used to be an ordinary school where children played, laughed and were educated. Their world and that of other Cambodian people turned into a hell however. In 1976, during the first years of their regime, the Khmer Rouge turned this school into a torture and interrogation prison.
Tuol Sleng or S-21 was notorious. People were repeatedly tortured by means of electric shocks, hot metal instruments, waterboarding and more. They were coerced into naming family members. It was literally hell on earth. After being interrogated people were transported to the Killing Fields. Chances of returning from these Killing Fields alive was almost nil.
To understand the atrocity: of the 17,000 people that entered Tuol Sleng only 7 survived.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Once inside the gates you recognize that Tuol Sleng used to be a school; all schools in the country were built in the same way. The pull-up bars where children played and had fun are still there.
But within short that school lost its innocence. In the main building you see how quickly the school turned into a horrible Khmer Rouge prison: in former class rooms tiny prison cells were created. Prisoners were chained to the floor.
Other class rooms were transformed into spartan interrogation rooms. People were chained to the steel bed frame and interrogated. Every room has one desk with a chair where the interrogation was being transcribed.
The Khmer Rouge were very efficient in administration; each interrogation was transcribed and pictures were taken of every single person arriving at Tuol Sleng. Today 6,000 pictures have been saved and some of them are on display at the museum.
There are pictures from when people arrived but also pictures of people after they were killed. You stand in what used to be a classroom and look into the eyes of those innocent people. Pictures of elderly, children, even mothers with their babies….. Did they know their destiny? I kept on asking the same question time after time: Why?
There are several rooms with photographs and honestly I checked each room before our kids went in. They did see a lot of the museum. Although gruesome, they did want to know.
On the wall of some of the interrogation rooms you will find a special set of pictures. These are pictures of prisoners that were interrogated at exactly the time when the Khmer Rouge had to fled because the end of their regime was near.
Sadly the prisoners were shot right before the building was abandoned. Several of these bodies were found in the rooms by Vietnamese photographers who were the ones to first discover S-21 in 1979. The remains are buried at the premises.
Survivor Tuol Sleng prison
Of the 7 Tuol Sleng survivors only 3 are still alive today. One of them is Chum Mey. He wrote a book about this 12 days and 12 nights of torture. Our daughter felt very special after taking a picture with him.
I can imagine our kids will remember Cambodia partly for what they were encountered with at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng. But they will also remember the country as one of the most pleasant ones to visit, with friendly people that always seem to have a smile on their face!