Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tuol Sleng

(Note: This post has fairly vivid descriptions of Tuol Sleng and its horrors. I thought hard about whether to write it and decided I needed to, to be able to process what I saw and felt. It is up to you whether you read what is written below. It is important that we, as expat guests in Cambodia, visited both these places, since every single Cambodian alive today is affected by what happened here from 1975 to 1979 in some way or another.
The photos in this post are disturbing in the context of the article but not gruesome. There are more photographs here http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=37760&l=59de3&id=711058324.)

On Sunday we went to Tuol Sleng (which can be translated as ‘Hill of the poison tree’ ) Genocide Museum. The museum is at the site of the notorious 'Security Prison 21' or S-21. Formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School the four three storey buildings in street 113 were converted by the Khmer Rouge, in May 1976, into a prison and interrogation centre to ‘detain, interrogate and exterminate’ people accused of opposing ‘Angkar’ (The organisation). It was a place known as 'konlaenh choul min dael chenh' or ‘the place where people went in but never came out’.
In 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, from 1975 to 1979, more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population is believed to have died under the terror reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (see previous post for more history). At Tuol Sleng an estimated 17000 people (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000) were imprisoned, systematically interrogated, tortured, coerced into signing fictitious confessions (usually that they were working for the CIA) and then murdered (although many would have died from starvation or disease before then). Prisoners were taken from all parts of Cambodia and from all walks of life. There were Vietnamese, Laotians, Thai, Indians, Pakistanis, British, Americans, Canadians, a New Zealander and two Australians but the majority were Cambodian.

In the beginning most of the victims were from the previous government and anyone who was educated, lived in the urban areas of Cambodia or was overtly religious. Soldiers, government officials, teachers, doctors, students, monks, Muslims, engineers, professionals of any kind and anyone who stood out for any reason were herded into S-21 and interrogated until they confessed their connections to Lon Nols government, Vietnam or America. Then they were tortured into giving up relatives, friends and neighbours. Later on paranoia within the ranks of the Khmer Rouge saw hundreds of their own party activists and their families bought to Tuol Sleng to suffer the same fate. Whole families were taken including new born babies and children. According to Khmer Rouge records found at Tuol Sleng some 10499 people were killed not including the children. The final fourteen victims, who had died in the hours before the Vietnamese pushed the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh, are buried in white washed graves in front of the first building. There were only 7 survivors of Tuol Sleng.

The classrooms of the old school were turned into cells, some little more than a meter wide, and torture chambers with iron bars and electrified razor wire to prevent escapes and suicides. The first ten rooms on the ground floor of A-block were used for ‘interrogating’ important prisoners. The rusted wire bed- frames, manacles and tin latrine boxes are still there. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records including photos of prisoners at the point of death or soon after which were used as evidence that they were doing their job. In each room there is one of these photos.

The rooms on the floor above were large cells used to hold between 50-100 prisoners, lying prone, shackled by their ankles for days, able to very clearly hear what was going on in the rooms below. There is still a school blackboard in one of the rooms.

Outside A-block there is a sign in both Khmer and English with the rules of Tuol Sleng:

1. You must answer accordingly to my questions - don't turn them away.

2. Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.

3. Don't be a fool for you are a chap who dare thwart the revolution.

4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.

5. Don't tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.

6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

7. 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.

8. Don't make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.

9. If you don't follow all the above rules, you will get many lashes of electric wire.

10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Behind the rule board is the scaffolding usually used in a school to hold a swing or two, a set of uneven bars and beneath them huge terracotta plant pots. During the reign of Pol Pot these were chillingly turned into torturous apparatus used to inflict torment on prisoners in order to extract bizarre and outlandish confessions.

The next building has been turned into a gallery for some of the thousands of photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of the prisoners, each with a number around their neck, some smiling but most with just an empty look in their eyes. There are men, women (some with babies) and children. One of the boys I noticed had had his number pinned to him not to his clothing. These photographs were among the records found by the Vietnamese after they liberated Phnom Penh. There are many thousands of pages of meticulous records of arrivals (including the negatives of the individual numbered photographs) torture and execution schedules, manuals of the methodologies of torture and signed confessions. Many of the victims were buried in shallow graves on the grounds of S-21 but most were trucked under the cover of darkness to Choeung Ek, ‘The Killing Fields’, and forced to dig their own graves. They were then bludgeoned to death to save bullets and dumped into the hole. (We couldn't manage The Killing Fields on the same morning but will make the pilgrimage soon)

The third block is covered with razor wire and houses small rudimentary brick cells and on the second floor even smaller wooden cells some still equipped with manacles and the ammunition tins that were used as latrines.

The last block holds an exhibit containing a collection of photos and paintings. The paintings are the work of artist Vann Nath, one of the seven survivors of Tuol Sleng, kept alive so he could paint oil pictures of Pol Pot. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime Nath returned to Cambodia to paint a series of paintings depicting ‘life and death at Tuol Sleng’. There are a few of the instruments, equipment and furniture used at S-21 on display in this block too.
On the first floor is another photographic display this time of some of the people who worked at S-21 as they are today, free and living ‘normal’ lives. There were 1720 workers at S-21. Many were children, 10-15 years old, who had been recruited and trained by the Khmer Rouge to work as guards and 'medical officers'. Most started out as normal but grew increasingly cruel and disrespectful to their elders and the prisoners.
In 1997 the Cambodian Government asked the United Nations for assistance in setting up a genocide tribunal. It took nine years to agree to shape and structure of the court which is a mix of Cambodian and international laws. In the spirit of 'achieving justice, truth and national reconciliation', the Cambodian Government and the UN decided that the court should limit prosecutions to the senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea (the name of the state established by the Khmer Rouge) who planned or gave orders, as well as those most responsible for committing serious crimes. It is expected that only a small number of people will fall within this limit and be tried. The maximum sentence is life in prison and the minimum sentence is five years. There will be no death penalty. The death penalty is unconstitutional in Cambodia.
At the end of 2005 the judges were sworn in and were presented with the names of five possible suspects. On 19 September 2007 Nuon Chea, second in command of the Khmer Rouge and its most senior surviving member, was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Tuol Sleng and The Killing Fields are chilling reminders of what human beings are capable of. It still blows me away that this happened in my lifetime. According to http://www.globalsecurity.org/ there are 42 current wars or conflicts in 31 different countries today many are already decades old. Two countries are involved in 4 current conflicts; America and Indonesia.

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?
Mahatma Gandhi(1869 - 1948), "Non-Violence in Peace and War"

1 comment:

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

Thanks for writing this. My husband is in Cambodia with work as I write. Just been to Siem Reap so far. It's depressing isn't it how slowly the wheels of justice grind along, and often so ineffectually. It's also depressing that the one thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. thi sha shappened, to a greater or lesser degree, but equally horrifically in so many places; China, Chile, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Zimbabwe (past and present), even here in Albania there was an almost unknown, but vicious, cultural revolution, Mao style, which continued for nearly 40 yrs.
I hav elinked you on my blog. With a slight hiccup initially when I inadvertently linked to a Trekky Star Wars blog by mistake! Oops