tuol sleng, s21

While you don’t have to hit The Killing Fields and Genocide Museum in one day, in a strange way, it does make it easier to take it all in.

Like watching Pan’s Labrynth or Shutter Island you kind of just let it all happen to you and then spend the rest of the day processing what you saw.
Having said that, going to S21 after the Killing Fields is like watching Shutter Island for the second time, with key moments you missed the first time suddenly making sense with a greater understanding of the story.

Personally, I think it’s better to visit Tuol Sleng first: after all, the prisoners were all processed here before being moved on for execution.

a chilling memorial nestled in the heart of a city.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S21 as the prison was named by the Khmer Rouge, was Tuol Svay Pray High School until 1976.
The site still stands, preserved as it was found in the centre of the city with the prison taking over several streets around the school as well, although today the perimeter has been reduced back to just the campus of the old school. Partly practicality – the guards and staff would live in the houses surrounding the prison – largely it was to deter people from coming too close.
An endeavour to keep the prison secret for as long as possible.

The audio guides were available here for an optional extra fee, and while most people decided to save their dollars and interpret the museum themselves, I couldn’t not have a guide.
As it turned out, there was so much information you’d miss from not having the guide, the depth and understanding of the site intensified when you heard the chilling stories behind the rooms, the beds, the graves, the pictures on the wall.
Zac didn’t want a guide either, and set off with his camera to take photos (something I found slightly ironic given his earlier indignation and lectures on respect regarding photos at the killing fields).

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Audio guide, a spot in the shade and a defeated posture.

Plugged in, I followed the advice of my audio tour and wandered over to a bench in the shade, opposite 14 white graves: a memorial to the final prisoners of S21 to continue my sobering day.
They’re buried in front of an innocent enough looking wooden frame, part of the playground that later became prime spot for hanging prisoners, arms tied behind their backs.
Not to kill them, of course, just enough for them to pass out from the pain.

There was so much information to take in, black and white photos covered the walls of each room, with an eerie sense of despair filling the air: it was a lot to take in and at times it was simply overwhelming.
The museum provides plenty of places for contemplation, benches in the shade where you can pause and attempt to assimilate the information you’re being bombarded with.
The audio guide encourages you to take your time.

the devil is in the detail.

Typical of a tyrannical communist regime everything was recorded, prisoners were required to write detailed biographies on arrival, with dossiers being created for each of the 20,000 prisoners that passed through S-21. Many of the negatives were separated from the original dossiers (meaning many of the prisoners remain unidentified) it’s a chilling victory for an exercise in depersonalisation.
Prisoners were just numbers, little more than animals, vermin to be exterminated for the greater good of the country.

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Walls of photos, of prisoners dead and alive peer out at you from every room of the museum.

Tasks were carried out in different departments.
Guards could justify their actions and absolve themselves of responsibility because they were just taking photos, they were just measuring prisoners, they were just the cook, just the cleaner, just the person who put them on the truck or the driver, they were just one part of a bigger machine, not personally responsible for the mass murder of their countrymen.

Floors and walls still stained with blood, rudimentary scratches and graffiti on the wall from illiterate guards, the was a great presence at the prison that still demanded to be felt.
You half expected to find a beaten body or half rotted corpse in the next room, holding your breath, preparing for the worst and finding an empty room.
Yet all the deaths at the prison were by accident.
Guards were expected to be skilled enough at torture to simply maim a confession out of the prisoners and failing to do so was punishable, with lengthy reports and debriefs for each unauthorised death.
Prisoner’s should be disposed of in the ‘proper way’ at the killing field.

Most of the guards took great pleasure in torturing the prisoners, comparing it to an ‘art’, but despite this, I still wasn’t quite sure how to feel when I found out female guards suffered a spate of rapes, leading for the Khmer Rouge to change it’s policy, no longer allowing female guards to be alone with prisoners.
It went the other way too, of course.
Stories of guards so angry female prisoners evoked such lust in them, they beat them to death in lieu of being allowed to take advantage of them.
The scale of it all.
The clinical depravity and precision of execution.

a presence that demanded to be felt.

I went upstairs in Building B, where the cells remain as they were found in 1979, preserved as a chilling homage to the past.
Zac and I wandered around separately, but we both felt the same…energy, for lack of a better word when we went to those cells.
Nothing to do with my imagination, or the stories I was listening to, after all, Zac didn’t have the audio guide.
You enter through one of the tiny wooden cell doors, and from there can walk between the floor of cells, as the guards would.
Hundreds of wooden pens, barely big enough for a person to stand, just long enough to lie down.

I wandered through one room of cells before I felt my chest getting tight.
The air seemed heavier, somehow and I was overwhelmed with despair and deep sadness.
My breathing caught and I started to panic.
I stumbled over the wooden beam, trying to get out of the only door in the room and try not to run down the stairs back to the ground floor and the open courtyard.

I felt guilty for being so affected.
No, not guilty, that’s not quite right, more that I didn’t have a right to feel such a deep sadness when I only found out Pol Pot was more than a name associated with an obscure part of history I’d forgotten.

There were so many stories.
A Romeo and Juliet type affair, a New Zealand sailor who remained stoic to the end, murdered for being loyal to his commander: Colonel Sanders.

It’s certainly a day I’ll always remember, if not as intently as I feel now, and makes understand the complexities of Cambodian culture a little easier.

 

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