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!
[…] are some more great overviews of the Genocide Museum from fellow bloggers: Travel Moments, Act of Traveling, and Vagabond […]
[…] Je kunt de geschiedenis van Cambodja niet veranderen, maar je kunt er wel van leren. Dat is wat Emiel van den Boomen graag meegeeft na zijn bezoek aan dit museum. Lees zijn verhaal over het bezoek van hem en zijn gezin aan het museum op Act of Traveling. […]
I’ve been Emiel. It really upset me, brutality like that is hard to take. It’s very rare that I say this, but I wouldn’t take the kids, I don’t want them to have to think about it. Hell, I don’t want to think about it! I read a lot about SE Asian history. The books about what happened under Pol Pot haunt me, some I even had to skip pages. Truly disturbing.
Can fully understand that. I feel different however. Although kids are young, I think it’s important that they know what happened in our world. And actually still happens. They watch the news and see terrible things going on in Syria. We live in a mad world and although this Cambodian museum is very cruel, we decided to go. I agree it’s hard to take..how can people become like this??
Great post. We have an article about our experience visiting S21 and the Killing Fields going out today and it’s interesting that we also wondered whether the people in those pictures knew what lay ahead of them. We found those photos chilling and the visit to the Killing Fields and prison disturbing but worthwhile; as you say, history cannot and should not be denied – we have a duty to learn about these episodes in history and learn from them.
Thanks Andrew. I will be checking your posts right now.
Wow, I so look forward to visiting Cambodia, but things like this will make it difficult. I know the history and we too travel with the children so they can see the history and the truth. We prefer they see it with us, so we can discuss and answer questions. It will be tough when we get there. Our kids will be 10 and 12 when we are there later this year, so hopefully that will be old enough. Thanks for sharing this.
Heidi, our kids are exactly the same age. There are indeed places like this in our world that are extremely tough but important at the same time. Think of Auschwitz in Poland. I hope you will have the opportunity to visit.
I visited the Genocide Museum a few years ago. It was very disturbing and I felt down after visiting it. It’s unthinkable what humans could do to another human being!
I can so understand that Foong Pc. We felt the same, but on the other hand I was glad that we actually went to visit the place. It’s an important part of history, and you need to know if you want to understand the Cambodian way of life I guess.
When we took our very young kids we glossed over a lot of this history. We did go to a killing cave in Battambang near a temple – our youngest didn’t register and I don’t think our oldest really got the idea. But it’s definitely hard to walk around without having to explain something at some point.
The amazing part is how upbeat the people you meet seem to be about their day to day life. Yet there must be a lot of personal wounds still healing.
We also visited the killing cave in Battambang which to me was actually the most terrifying place linked to the Khmer Rouge period. Our youngest kept on asking us questions for like two weeks; mainly about how it was possible that someone with these terrible ideas could become the country’s leader. It was a tough history lesson, but a far better one compared to reading it in a book at school. Thanks for your comment @journeysoftfabulist:disqus