So, with mum & dad safely on the plane and an upset wife to deal with, I decided to cheer her up by taking her first to Tuol Sleng Genocide museum (S21) followed by Choeng Uk Genocide centre (the Killing Fields), as they sounded like a fun day out.
Seriously, we’d both read about the S21 detention centre in Phnom Penh and the killing fields that were used for executions, but seeing it in reality was a very sobering experience.
After scooting through the madness that is Phnom Penh traffic for 5 minutes, we arrived outside the Genocide Museum. Originally a school, it was changed to be a detention centre by the Khmer Rouge when they took over the capital. This is the place that “traitors to the Khmer Rouge” were brought to be interrogated, tortured and eventually sent to their deaths.
The inmates here were usually brought here due to the paranoia of their comrades who had accused them of some spurious crime. Others were brought for being teachers, wearing glasses or for simply having an education. The Khmer Rouge methodology was to bring the entire family here, regardless of age or gender, as they did not want anyone left around who may engineer revenge against the regime in the future.
There are four large blocks in the compound, 3 stories tall, all housing former classrooms which had been converted into holding cells. In Building A on the first floor we saw iron beds with leg manacles and photographs on the walls of the last inmates who were murdered just before the Khmer Rouge escaped.
Outside this building are 14 graves containing the remains of those last inmates. On the upper floors are presentations of the main offenders in the Khmer Rouge and the current state of their trials (yes, they have still not yet been prosecuted!).
Building 2 contains photographs of every inmate every sent to S21. A detailed record was kept as the Khmer Rouge wanted to make sure that they killed every one correctly. It’s harrowing looking through the photos and seeing those that had no idea why they were being brought here and others who obviously knew only too well. The photographs of the children really do make you want to scream with the injustice of it all. How could a 2 year old child be “a traitor to the Angkar” ?
Seeing children around the age of 10, as I was back in 1975, brought home the reality of what these people suffered and the age at which some of their lives were cut terribly short.
Building 3 was a mass detention centre and the classrooms had been sectioned off into tiny cubicles where they could just about fit one person in. No sanitary facilities whatsoever were evident. Stories upstairs from survivors (there were 7) of the centre.
Building 4 is now a general exhibition featuring photographs and documents from the Khmer Rouge regime and has a presentation of skulls, bones and torture instruments that were unearthed nearby.
Nobody who was brought here was ever released. A few died here but most were taken from here to the Killing Fields.