Phnom Penh: The Horrific Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

 

Be still my heart. 

It’s hard to imagine the things that happened during the Khmer Rouge until I stepped foot inside the horrific Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21. This was once a high school where happy students spent their time during the day with their school friends, until the Pol Pot regime took over and turned it into a torture prison from 1975-1979.

Currently the museum is located in the BKK 3 area, at the end of BKK 1 where the expats call their home and neighborhood. The first time I came here was a few years ago and I told myself that would be the last visit. However, since a group of friends came to tour Phnom Penh, they invited me to go with them. I went with a heavy heart.

Entering what used to be a school compound turned interrogation center of S-21.

Entering what used to be a school compound turned interrogation center called S-21.

 

Inside the prison block. 

Before the first prison block, we saw a grave site dedicated to the lives lost in this area. This was the last 14 prisoners who died in Tuol Sleng and their tombs were placed here as a reminder of the past. I continued walking to “Building A”, a three-storey building divided into 20 prison cells. These were used to hold high official (ranking) prisoners, interrogate and torture them.

What’s sad is that the prisoners were not allowed to kill themselves, therefore each morning, the guards would enter the cells, strip them to check for any objects and made sure that they could not harm themselves.

The next Building had torture equipments with blood spattered stain on the ceiling that can still be seen today. At this point, my imagination went overdrive at the sight and I couldn’t understand how someone could have done this to their fellow nation.

The classroom halls were now filled with frames of photos, mostly taken of the prisoners when they entered Tuol Sleng. All of them had their portraits taken, their date of birth, place of birth recorded before they were sent to their cells.

I did not dare to enter the rooms with divided prison cells as it felt just too eerie for me. My brave friends did, while I waited for them outside the barbed wire building. I looked up and saw the entire place from third floor down was covered in these sharp wires to prevent prisoners escaping or suicide.

Walking the prison corridors which led to the prison cells.

Walking the prison corridors which led to the prison cells.

A bed used as torture room in S-21 Genocide Museum.

A bed used as torture room in S-21 Genocide Museum.

This building block didn't allow any prisoners to leave.

This building block didn’t allow any prisoners to leave.

Portraits of prisoners lined up in the rooms.

Portraits of prisoners lined up in the rooms.

 

I didn’t want to stay any longer after seeing the gallows. 

Just outside the building block is a pole with cables attached to it, that used to be an exercise area for the students. The Khmer Rouge used this area for interrogation purposes instead, tying them with a rope before hanging them upside down until they lost consciousness. When they did, the prison guards would lower them until their heads are dipped in the smelly, filthy jar to wake them up and continue the interrogation.

After seeing this, I decided to end the walk around Tuol Sleng and waited for my friends on a bench in front of the memorial statue. I find this whole scene utterly depressing and sad in a way, yet I am glad that this episode is over now and the country is moving forward in terms of development.

If ever you’re in Phnom Penh and want to know about the history of this Kingdom, the two best places to start would be the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Genocide Museum.

Looking at the Gallows in horror.

Looking at the Gallows in horror.

The peaceful school compound now.

The peaceful school compound now.

Address: Tuol Sleng (S-21) Genocide Museum, Street 113, Phnom Penh, Cambodia | Opening Hours: 7-11:30am, 2-5:30pm | Entrance Fees: $2

About Yafieda Jamil

A Malaysian girl currently working abroad in Phnom Penh city. I love a good road trip, hot cappuccinos, spicy food and staring at old buildings. My mission is to inspire people to see the world differently before we all get any older. Oh and giraffes are the most beautiful creatures on earth.

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