by Female Abroad

Cambodia is well known for the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people between 1975 - 1979. In the heart of Phenom Penh is the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly S-21 aka Security Office 21), where more than 17,000 people were killed with the youngest being a two year old child. As you arrive at the museum you will be surprised at how the cement buildings blend into their surrounds and the reason for this is because before it was a site of mass murder, it was a high school - Tuol Svay Prey High School to be exact.

After visiting the Killing Fields we found our way to where most people came from to the location, the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. You can purchase tickets to enter at the front gate with the option of a guide or an audio guide. Take the audio guide as our guide only read the English signs that were around the museum and did not provide any further commentary but with how long people who had the audio tour stopped at certain areas, it made me think we were missing quite a bit of information.

When you enter, it looks like it was a very busy school and had well manicured grounds except the 14 white graves that meet you help remind you as to where you are. These 14 graves were Cambodian's killed by the Vietnamese when they came to free the country of the Khmer Rouge in January of 1979.

When the Khmer took over the area in May 1976, they referred to it as Security Office 21 before the name was changed to Toul Sleng meaning "Hill on which the Guilty Must Stay". While there were other security offices around Cambodia, this location was designed to hold, interrogate and exterminate traitors to the revolution. Traitors included anyone that could read, write, intellectuals such as teachers, or held a profession that was against Angkar and their families. To make this even more heartbreaking, most of the guards at this prison were pre-teens and teens between the ages of 10 - 15 because the Khmer Rouge felt that they had not developed consciences yet. These kids eventually turned on their trainers and tortured them to death as they felt that their trainers were traitors of the revolution.

If you head to your left, you will see emptied classrooms that were turned into interrogation cells with places for the chains. The rooms have not been touched, they are as they were found when the Vietnamese freed the prisoners. In each room of this building are metal bed frames, chains, and photos of what was found of the prisoners or the bodily remains of prisoners in these rooms. Just outside of these rooms is what looks like a work out area with gymnast pull up bars and some out of place looking terracotta pots. It turns out that this area was changed into another torture area with people being hung upside down from bars with their heads dipping into dirty water that was held in the pots until they were dead or nearly dead. A large sign stating "Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something. You must do it right away without protesting." is posted behind you if you turn around.

The middle buildings still has the original barbwire outside of the builds. These featured the makeshift holding cells that you could walk through, some made of brick and others wood, but both styles tiny with chain holds. When you get to the middle you are met with photos upon photos of people who had entered and the majority of who had passed while there. It is heard breaking seeing the detailed records that were kept of child, men, and women both Cambodian, Vietnamese, and 9 Westerner's (including one Australian). Out of these thousands of photos that stare back at you eerily, most were only held and tortured here for a max of four months before being taken to a killing field where they would have to dig their own grave before being murdered. As bullets were scarce, most of the time these people were not shot to death. The last room in this building featured photos of mass graves in the killing field, torture, and more.

On the upper floors were mass holding cells where 50 - 100 people were crammed and shackled to a long iron bar. They were inspected four times a day, given two spoonfuls of watery rice twice a day, and every now and again they were sprayed with a hose through the window to clean them. They were to lay on their back and if they wanted to move position, they had to ask permission to do so.

The very last building had a bunch of what looked to be outreach and therapy businesses. There used to be murals painted here by Vann Nath who was only one of seven survivors of the prison. He was kept alive to paint portraits of the Khmer Rouge's leader Pol Pot. At one time, this museum also received government funding and there was an information board showing who was a major leader of the Khmer Rouge. A guide told us that out of those listed there, most had died of natural causes but three were still awaiting the end of the trial but because each of them knew powerful Cambodian officials, the trial had been dragged out. I visited in 2018 and the Vietnamese freed the country in 1979. For something that seemed cut and dry, that is a long time to have a trial drag on. When we started asking more questions, the guide was quick to shut us down with simple answers because after all, it is a communist country so you cannot speak ill of those in power especially when one of the horrific offenders is friends with the current president. The day after visiting this museum however the final three were charged and sentenced.

A lot of this area by the bulletin board is also aimed at tourists with coffee sellers and there was even a part where one person was selling books of his stories through a headset in a sheltered area but two other people were selling books of their time under an umbrella towards the back of the campus. When I asked which was a more important story (as I could afford to buy one but not both books), I was informed that the two men under the umbrella were the youngest people rescued from the torture (there is a mural showing both of them being rescued near the entrance) where as the man in the shelter was supposed to be killed but because he was a mechanic, he was saved. In the end I bought neither as I could not decide.

After leaving, most of us were angry that the country did not act faster to punish those that committed these atrocities which were so open and obvious. It really made you realize how helpless you can be against the government and evil doers.

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