Cambodia in red

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

MAKING it to Siem Reap and finally seeing Angkor Wat was fulfilling. But knowing a little more of the country I was visiting would be a plus, and this is why I found myself in Phnom Penh.

A fellow traveler wanted us to make the most of our visit to Cambodia and planned a side trip to the capital city for us to see another facet of the country’s history, a more recent one.

I wasn’t entirely prepared for this part of the tour, I don’t think nobody will be. Yes, I’ve heard and read of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields, but to be standing on the very spot of the “incidents” was eerie, to say the least. It was nothing I expected.


The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Tuol Sleng means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill”) was formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School campus converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and interrogation center-- Security Prison 21 or S-21, where the buildings were enclosed in barbed wires and the classrooms altered to tiny jails and torture chambers.

For four years, 1975-1979, S-21 held an estimated total of 17,000 prisoners (some suggested higher) that included government officials and soldiers of the previous regime, students, factory workers and professionals (academics, doctors, teachers, engineers, etc.) and even monks. The regime driven by paranoia, the count soon included members of the Khmer Rouge, people who were viewed as potential threat to Pol Pot.

Prisoners who were brought in were photographed, required to give autobiographies in detail, stripped, shackled in cells, slept on floors, forbidden to talk to each other, fed with four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day, drink water with permission, and hosed down every four days. Those who disobeyed the prison’s strict regulations were severely beaten.

Within two or three days after they were brought in, all prisoners were interrogated and tortured (beating, electric shock, hot metal searing, suffocation, hanging, etc.) into confessing to the crimes they were charged with. From the vast number of prisoners who were innocent, the torturing was able to draw false confessions.

If the prisoners didn’t die of some disease due to unhygienic living condition or committing suicide, the torturing did them in. Initially, S-21 was the burial ground to its victims and eventually ran out of space after the first year. It was then that prisoners were sent to the Choeung Ek extermination center where they were executed by iron bar battering, pickaxes, machetes, and many other makeshift weapons. The bodies were then buried in masses.

S-21 was uncovered in 1979 by the invading Vietnamese army. Of the huge numbers of prisoners, only seven were presumed to have survived and as of September 2011, only three are said to be alive. I was able to meet one of the survivors, his name is Bou Meng and he related his story in a published book.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was established in 1980, the year after the security prison was uncovered. It tells the unfortunate stories of S-21’s prisoners and the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge regime. Within its walls are the classrooms turned into torture chambers, shackles to bound the prisoners, the implements of torture and hundreds of faces in photographs of the prisoners.

Yes, I was not prepared for this. I exited the museum complex with a heavy heart. I can’t even speak. And the sad moment was far from over as my friends and I were heading to where the heartbreaking story of Cambodia continues.

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Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on October 04, 2012.


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