We all travelled together by train across Thailand to cross the land border into Cambodia, all 6 of us. Me, my husband, daughters No:1,2,4,5. The tales are all true about the road! Or they were then.
When we reached the capital Phnom Penh, The Killing Fields were high on our 'to visit' agenda - so we watched the 1984 multi-award winning film, 'The Killing Fields' the night before our visit to ensure the girls had some knowledge of these horrendous events. We'd all been disturbed by our visit to the museum at Kanchanaburi - The Bridge over the River Kwai, at the atrocities committed during the WW11. All had studied WWII and had knowledge of the Holocaust and war atrocities.
Christmas trees were up at Number Eleven GuestHouse, everyone was happy, everything was chilled, we were heading back to Koh Chang in Thailand, for a bit of a break from budget rooms, and a 'flash' place we'd already booked, we'd had a fabulous time in Siem Reap at Angkor Wat. So you can imagine the mood change when the reality of the Khmer Rouge and the depravity of their actions hit home.
We must be like the ox, and have no thought, except for the Party. And have no love, but for the Angka. People starve, but we must not grow food. We must honor the comrade children, whose minds are not corrupted by the past.
No.5 daughter was only 11 at the time, and some people might question our judgement. Everyone makes their own choices about how much of the reality of our world they reveal to their children. I would rather my girls know the truth, even when unpalatable: without this knowledge how can they fight to make our world a better, more equal, peaceful place. In the UK, they are massively cocooned from poverty, war, inequality, disease: as most travellers will tell you,'we don't know we're born in the UK!' I didn't want them to have a 'me,me' out-look. That was the whole point of travelling.
So we planned to visit on the 17th December.
Two tuk tuks took us to Tuol Sleng - S-21 Camp. We'd been squeezed into one tuk tuk/auto to many times, to know it was absolutely impossible. Drivers constantly offering to fit us into one was not only painful but we actually burst a tyre after one hopeful driver insisted he could take all 6 of us in Kanchanaburi!
Drivers are usually a great source of local info but boy, was our driver sullen! He completely refused to converse at all... and he'd been so cheery when my husband booked him! Was it because we were all women/girls? Tried again... his understanding of english suddenly vanished! Maybe it was the thought of visiting S-21... in a country so recently changed by horrific criminal acts, you can't be sure what memories each place brings to those who lived through it. You can't know if their uncle, sister, father was a victim. I left it.
The barbed wire fence around Tuol Sleng gives only a hint of the horrors to come. Just seeing a school building fenced in this way definitely sends shivers down your spine.
Tuol Sleng is the location where the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime, more commonly know as the Khmer Rouge (KR), set up a prison to detain individuals accused of opposing the Angkar. Pol Pot - Brother No. 1- in the Khmer Rouge regime, led, between 1975 and 1979, this bloody madness which heaped misery, suffering and death upon millions of Cambodians. Such was the fear and hatred of Pol Pot that many Cambodians refused to believe he was dead until they saw pictures of his body. He died in 15 April 1998.
Tuol Sleng literally means a poisonous hill or a place on a mound to keep those who bare, or supply guilt ( toward Angkar).
In 1962 S-21 was Ponhea Yat high school, named after a royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk: during the Lon Nol regime in the 1970’s, it was renamed Tuol Savy Prey High School. The site covers an area of 600 metres by 400 metres, and during the Khmer Rouge regime was enclosed by corrugated iron sheets, electrified barbed wire, internally the building was used for administration, interrogation and torture offices. According to documentation S-21 Prison Camp was established at Tuol Sleng in May 1976. Other branches of S-21 were located in other provinces of Phnom Penh.
At first glance it looks like any other high school set in an urban street, pull up bars to swing on, grass to play on, five building overlooking the play area. The ground floor of the school appears as it did in 1977. On closer inspection all the classrooms are enclosed by iron bars to prevent escape. Walkways are covered over with tangled barbed wire. On the ground floor the classrooms are divided in to tiny single cells.
The row upon row of photos are harrowing, a woman holding her baby, a man with an ID tag pinned through his skin… These victims were taken from all parts of Cambodia, Foreigners were not exempt from Tuol Sleng, Vietnamese, Laotians, Indians, Thai's, British, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Australians were imprisoned at S-21. Prisoners came from all walks of life: farmers, workers, engineers, intellectuals, technicians, teachers, professors, students, ministers and even diplomats. Whole families were taken their to be exterminated 'en masse'.
It sunk in then, that we would have been included if we had the misfortune to be born in Cambodia. I was a teacher, my husband an engineer, the girls were students! From Year Zero (1975) we would have been high on the list for extermination...
“These self-righteous teens served as ‘praetorian guards’ of the Khmer Rouge revolution.”
Children, were trained at Tuol Sleng to carry out these heinous acts, boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 15 were selected by the KR to train, starting out as normal but becoming increasingly evil, they became exceptionally cruel and disrespectful towards prisoners and their elders. The ‘children’ guards, interrogators and other prison staff at S-21 were between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. “These self-righteous teens served as ‘praetorian guards’ of the Khmer Rouge revolution.” Punishments and acts of torture were extreme. The gallows in the courtyard are one example. Such scenes are unimaginable in a place where children should be safe and happy, preparing to take their place in the world...
Documents show that between 1977 and 1978 the average number held at the prison was between 1200 and 1500 at any single time, with incarceration periods of two to four months. Political prisoners were held between six and seven months. 17000 prisoners left from here to the Killing Fields never to be seen again.
Each morning at 4.30am all prisoners were told to remove their shorts, down to the ankles, for inspection by the staff. They had to move their hands and feet ( while shackled) as exercise. Prisoners were checked four times a day to ensure their shackles were not loose, if so they were immediately replaced.
Prisoners had to ask for permission to defecate or urine, defecation in a small iron bucket, urine in a small plastic bucket – those who did not were beaten or received 20 to 60 lashes of the whip.
Prisoners had to follow every regulations, even to move position during the night, permission had to be asked. Breaches were severly besten.
Living conditions were horrendous, bathing only when instructed. Sometimes once every two or three days, sometimes only once a fortnight. Prisoners were herded into a a room, a pipe allowed them to access the water for a short time. Skin diseases and various other communicable diseases caused misery. There was no medical treatment.
Regulations were published in each cell.
A Poem displayed in the Museum gives some indication about life under the Khmer Rouge. Written by Sarith Pou the poem begins...
I have to say we didn't linger too long. It's an incredibly sad place. We were all noticeably subdued. The two drivers were waiting us outside. Our driver cheerily waved at the one and only other man present ... the Husband, and then proceeded to completely ignore us on ride to Choeung Ek Memorial - The site of the Killing Fields. But that's another tale!
As this post was rather longer than I intended, I plan to write about the rest of the day at The Killing Fields in another post. Tuol Sleng opening hours can be checked out on line. The Museum has a website and strong statement about their purpose as a Museum of Genocide. The are always looking for funding and donations to continue to prevent crimes against humanity.
Visiting Tuol Sleng is not for the faint hearted nor the squeamish. If your keen to understand the people of modern day Cambodia, a trip here is essential to understand their very recent past.
Thanks for reading. Hope to see you again.