Phnom Phen – Part 4 of 4 – Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

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From the killing fields Won brought us to another place where massive numbers of murder and torture took place. The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Phen was once a high school, but during the reign of the Khmer Rouge it became a torture camp, prison and execution center. The walls previously meant to give studying students an escape from the busy city, were lined with barbed wire and became barriers of imprisonment. The museum sits in the center of a suburban neighborhood, just like any school would. Inside things are as unchanged as at the killing fields.

In a once classroom sits a single metal bed frame and on it, an ankle clamp, chain and hand held tool that looks like a shovel with a pick axe attached to it. On the floor are splatters of blood, left staining for decades. On the wall hangs a framed, poster-sized photograph depicting the same scene, but with a lifeless and bloody body on the bed. I sensed the weight of pain and death. There’s something about being in a room someone died tragically in. Maybe it’s the walls and ceiling that seems to hold an evil there. I remember feeling the same way when visited Abraham Lincoln’s death bed in Washington DC .

Paintings depicted use of the children’s playground as a place for torture. Victims were suspended by ropes from bars, tortured until they fainted, dropped into sewage to shock them awake and then tortured again. Some classrooms were turned into torture chambers yet others were divided into tiny holding cells, some built of brick, others of wood. Chains and food pans still sit inside them. Windows were lined with barbed fencing so that the tortured could not save themselves by committing suicide. In still other rooms were thousands of photographs taken of victims before they were murdered, another example of the disturbingly orderly executions. Many showed scars of abuse and had ropes or chains around their necks.

Stacey and I ended up on a closed third floor, mistaking it for a part of the museum and found a room full of old school desks, boxes and paperwork sitting on dusty chairs. It looked like it might be a place where the Khmer Rouge had moved all the things they didn’t need when converting the school to a torture camp. Though having with no signs of murder or torture, the place had a strange effect on me.

Looking at a small table sitting against the wall, I imagined the soldier who brought it there. I saw his sweaty hands grip the table’s edges, the weight of it on his belly as he climbed the stairs. On the top floor the sounds of genocide were distant and he was alone. When the soldier placed the table on the checkered tile floor and skidded it with a squeak towards the wall …what were his thoughts?

I can somewhat comprehend the arising of madness among masses; like an extreme case of rioting. But when a human being is alone, like the few minutes of alone we find when disappearing into the house from a backyard party, there’s a sudden silence from everything wild that’s happening and inner reflection is impossible to avoid. I was convinced that at some point, some solider stood where I was standing, looking at these same silent things and considered his actions. He thought about what was happening, what he was doing. He thought about how and why…just like I’d been doing all day.

I was overwhelmed and sadly the intensity became too much to see anymore. We went to the front gates of the museum dazed and numb and stood with amputees of all ages. They begged near refreshment and souvenir stands. Feeling helpless, I gave nothing but distant looks.

Eventually the Vietnamese invaded and liberated the Cambodian people from Khmer Rouge, but between the famine, starvation murder and hundreds of thousands who fled, almost 3 million people, a third of the Cambodian population, had disappeared. It is said that the Khmer Rouge rule sent Cambodia back to Year Zero. Even though the Khmer Rouge is gone today, their distorted evil is still injuring and taking lives. Millions of land mines, many of which were laid by the Khmer Rouge, still wait dangerously active throughout Cambodia. Travel guidebooks warn not to walk off of well worn paths. How can a nation move on when every year hundreds of children born well after the Khmer Rouge was eradicated, lose limbs or their lives? I had no idea, but landmine clearing is a huge international campaign.

Walking down the streets of the present

One Thought on “Phnom Phen – Part 4 of 4 – Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide”

  1. stacey Says:

    It’s disturbing how many people here don’t know anything about the Khmer Rouge. Can you imagine growing up and never hearing about the Nazi’s? Some huge world event that took thousands and thousands of lives and affected millions of people and it seems as though half the world doesn’t know it happened.
    These pictures illustrate your account of the events very well. They’re really strong.

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