I woke that morning with an upset stomach.
Nothing was really wrong, but my body was clearly dreading the day ahead. We rose early to prepare for a very somber day; a day which would be completely devoted to confronting Cambodia’s tragic past: the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 – 1979. If you missed my post on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime, you should read it here first.
We decided to devote an entire day to learning about the Cambodian genocide for two reasons: 1.) We felt it was extremely important — vital — to personally visit the historic sites associated with this crime to gain a better appreciation for what happened in Cambodia; to understand how it continues to impact the people today and to develop a deeper appreciation for the privileged lives we lead as Americans. It’s easy to forget how blessed you are if you’re not reminded of the struggles facing other countries and people groups around the world; 2.) We knew these activities would be extremely depressing, so we decided to sacrifice an entire day to this depression, rather than spreading out the depression in bits and pieces throughout the week. I recommend you do the same if you ever find yourself in Cambodia’s gritty capital, Phnom Penh.
Our first stop would be the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S-21. We decided we would start where the victims started: a former high school campus turned torture chamber; a prison where victims were taken to be interrogated, intimidated, and tortured before later being taken to the Killing Fields, where they would meet a brutal death. As morbid as it sounds, we really wanted to walk in the footsteps of the victims as much as is possible. Little did we know that we would literally have that opportunity.
S-21 includes several three-story buildings, each of which serve a different purpose today. We headed first to the back of the campus to view a brief video introduction to the horrors that occurred there just over thirty years ago. We walked somberly and silently through the campus and climbed the stairs to the third floor of the last building. The video detailed the story of a married couple who were separated, enslaved, imprisoned, tortured, and eventually killed during the Khmer Rouge. The story was recounted by the man’s mother, whose emotional narrative revealed the trauma and pain she still experiences from their loss.
After the video, we returned to the entrance of the museum and began our self-guided tour with the first building. This building showcases the rooms that were used to interrogate and torture victims until they gave in and wrote “confessions.” These interrogations were meant to break people down until they would give up names and locations of friends and family members. They were then forced to write these confessions, documenting everything their captors told them to write. Despite their “confessions,” prisoners were taken away to be killed anyway.
The rooms have been left mostly untouched since they were used by the Khmer Rouge. The torture rooms continue for all three floors of this building. Many contain metal bed frames and weapons of torture used by the Khmer Rouge to break down prisoners.
More weapons of torture used by the Khmer Rouge.
Some of the rooms are totally vacant, which is somehow even more haunting. Because so many of the rooms look the same or have nothing in them, many visitors just walk by and peek in the door. We went into every room, spending time looking at details on the floors and walls. We also silently prayed for healing and restoration for the people of Cambodia as we stood in the stark, empty rooms.
The putrid yellow walls have not been repainted.
We said we wanted to walk in the footsteps of the victims, and we were later presented with a gruesome opportunity to do so. As I mentioned, we paid close attention to details on the floors and walls in each of the rooms (thanks to a tip from fellow traveler Breakaway Backpacker!) and what we would find on the floor of one of the empty rooms was nothing short of bone-chilling.
The bloody footprints of victims covered the floor. We stood there in silence and prayer as we came to terms with the reality of what we we seeing: people — real people just like us — had been tortured and beaten on the very tiles on which we now stood. They had suffered unbelievable pain and trauma here, something which we will likely never have to endure. So many questions run through your mind when you see something like this … but perhaps the most simple, but poignant, question was the one for which I most wanted an answer: What were their names?
We stood there for ten minutes or so, just reflecting, photographing, and praying. Dozens of visitors passed by while we were in there and not one of them stopped to notice the footprints. Watching people pass without noticing these footprints of real people broke my heart and frustrated me at the same time. A European tourist with a fancy camera poked his head in the door. I couldn’t stand to watch one more person pass, so I motioned him in and pointed to the floor. As he realized what he was seeing, he looked up at me in horror, but then nodded in gratitude that I had pointed it out as he, like so many others, would have overlooked this sobering reminder of the victims tortured in that very room. He, like me, then took to photographing each footprint.
Although the museum remains fairly authentic in its preservation of the facility, Building “C” is the one building that has been left almost entirely untouched. The sign pictured below explains the layout of the building and explains the reasoning behind the use of barbed wire on the balconies.
The view from the upper-level of Building C. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have been on this side of the barbed wire during the time of the Khmer Rouge. I stand here as a tourist. They stood here as torture victims.
What a privileged life I lead.
One of the brick cells of Building C. A chain remains, to which the prisoner would have been tied, as a pool of dried blood lies next to it.
The view through the window of one of the wooden cells.
After more than three hours spent making our way through each of the buildings and checking out some of the exhibits dedicated to the victims, we were an emotional mess. We stopped to re-fuel with a soda when we noticed a book display and an older gentleman asleep under a tree. As we approached the table, a woman roused the man and he came to greet us, introducing himself in Khmer while we spoke to him in English. We learned that he is one of only a few people to survive being confined at S-21. He survived only because of his skills as a typist, which the Khmer Rouge were in need of.
We thanked him for his time and purchased a copy of the book, which he proudly autographed for us. It was so humbling to meet someone who had endured the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. We tried to swallow the lumps in our throats as we turned to leave, in search of a tuk tuk to take us to our next stop along the Khmer Rouge trail: the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Khmer Rouge, I recommend the following books, which document the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and explore the implications for Cambodians today:
Check back later this week for the conclusion of our series on the Khmer Rouge: Confronting Cambodia’s Tragic Past, Part 3: The Killing Fields.
Our stay in Phnom Penh was provided courtesy of AsiaRooms.com. All opinions are our own.