Travelling to Cambodia with its amazing 11th-century temple complexes of Angkor Wat it is pretty well impossible not to take into account too the horrors of the 1970’s and its ‘Year Zero’ political dogma introduced by it’s ruthless leader Pol Pot.
Therefore its hard not to want to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in its capital Phomn Penh once called Security Prison S-21. There are arguments that this is purely ‘Dark Tourism’ or a desire to visit places of this nature like Auschwitz for example. Seeing and experiences such places to me makes a world of difference, to be in a tiny rough built cell, the medieval leg irons, a toilet box is not gloating its understanding. You can put yourself in that position and perhaps only partly imagine what millions went through, yes I had read about it but being there tells a whole different story one I will never forget!
I had no qualms about my visit from a moral point of view if anything it enhanced my understanding of how one person with a twisted ideology can wreak so much human misery.
If you did not agree in the slightest way with the brutal Maoist communist philosophy or were a lawyer, teacher or even from the cities the chances are its leader Pol Pot a former teacher himself would have you put in S-21 or other similar prisons.
The former Tuol Svay Prey High School a place of education was turned euphemistically into a ‘re-education’ center or Cambodia’s most notorious torture chamber. There was no education here, it was a conveyer belt of pure torture. The people who did not die as a direct action of its highly indoctrinated prison staff then they were taken to the infamous killing fields 15 kilometers outside of the city, it was very much one way only, very few lived to tell what had a happened there.
The evening transport would show up collect anywhere between 6 to 30 prisoners and then off the city limits where they would double check the names of those ‘must smashed’ prisoners that was desired by Pol Pot and they literally were smashed to death with clubs, tools, cart axles or stabbed and killed in any way to save the cost of bullets.
Men, and more shockingly women, children and babies were taken to have their heads caved-in too. If the Khmer Rouge thought you were from the wrong part of society and if you passed through such places as S-21 alive then death would follow without fail in the rural rice fields of Cambodia…
One very surprising fact is that the people running the place where mainly really young people around the age of 18 to early 20’s. Coincidently at the same time of my visit a party of 6th formers from an English school all who were around 18 years old they too found that chilling and tearful as they toured the complex.
Certainly, the haunting photographs and displays show just how like the Nazi’s they were documenting all who passed through. But just a fraction of photos of those killed can be seen now there. However, it is believed to be some 3 million people who were systematically and brutally killed during this period.
This wartime relic of the Genocide Museum in the center of Phomn Penh tells very graphically how life and a how a great deal of death stemmed from this former high school.
Even trying to end your own life as a prisoner in an effort to terminate the living hell of the place was denied…they had thought of everything. Prisoners would be searched daily to see that they did not have any items from which they could kill themselves. The upper floors were covered with a tight mesh of barbed wire so jumping to their death was impossible too.
Two survivors have in fact written books about the place, and are there most days and thanking their luck that they were there as the Vietnamese forces moved to depose Pol Pot regime and free what prisoners and enforced workers who had not already been killed prior to the Vietnamese marching in.
A little bit of luck they had managed a miracle and stayed alive, but you have to wonder what nightmares must still flash into their dreams, even 40 plus years on?
These are the ten rules that prisoners had to obey:
- You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
- Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
- Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
- You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
- While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
- Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
- Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
- If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
- If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Pol Pot died in 1998 thought to be aged 73 but no one knew for sure. In 1975 he marched into the Phomn Penh and started to empty the city of all its people. He outlawed money, abolished religion, closed schools, made everybody work even the children. His Khmer Rouge ideals wanted to make the land pure in terms of its people so he was extra harsh to the Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai’s no foreign traits were allowed just pure Cambodian.
He was put under house arrest but never faced any charges until 1997, he claimed that figures of deaths under his rule were exaggerated.