Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum
This is the second post today that comes with a warning. The images are not quite as harrowing as the previous post but neither are they easy viewing. Again it is important to remember and learn lessons, but as I am currently on my own in a small hotel room at Phuket airport listening to planes fly over my head and rain pound on the window I could do with a hug right about now.
So this place is the second part to the previous post, more of the same story really. It is in Phnom Penh and was once a high school until it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and was used as Security Prison 21 or S 21 until 1979. It is suspected to have been only one of more than 150 such places across Cambodia used to torture and kill thousands of its citizens.
Much of the school has been left as it was found and it is very chilling walking around the once classrooms that have been modified to create many small cells per room. The men had brick cells and the women’s were made from wood.
The downstairs classrooms in one block were made into torture areas where residents were taken to have information extracted from them. It all feels a little like a film set waiting for Spielberg to film a grim movie. Only it isn’t it is a real place where very bad things once happened.
As always it is when the human element is added that things begin to sink in and become all to real and tangible. As you walk around the last section of classrooms are full of images of the people who died, next to images of the many young people who were recruited to work for the Khmer Rouge. I found this juxtaposition in itself quite harrowing. Essentially a group of people who through luck, misfortune, choice or pressure ended up on different sides of the fence. I’m sure that once many of these people would have been friends and acquaintances and then one day they are enemies. It is something I have often pondered how easily this can seem to happen in our world. A friend once said to me when we were talking about solo travelling that ‘essentially most people are good people’. I choose to believe that and have many beautiful experiences to back that up but when you are faced with historical situations like this one you can’t fail to ask the question ‘where did all the goodness go?’
The top image above is of victims and the bottom two images are people who were recruited to work. The bottom images seem to display such despairing faces just as much as the victims above, their eyes seem dead and holding a wealth of horrific images and thoughts behind them. It seems to me that they were all victims in different ways and to different degrees, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of choice in any of the scenarios.
In each classroom of cells there are numbers stencilled or painted on the walls to denote each prisoner in there. I find these strangely fascinating and hauntingly beautiful. I think it must be something of a coping strategy in me to search out beauty in the most unlikely places. It is the eternal optimist that lives in my body who cannot believe that all beauty can be eradicated much like the human spirit it is in there somewhere it is just a case of searching hard enough to find it.
The final image is indeed one of hope. The children in it were discovered when the school was liberated and the Khmer Rouge were over thrown. One of them now works as a gardener in the museum which much like the Killing Fields has been developed into quite a serine place with some beautiful planting and a real sense of peace. It is definitely a place to sit and ponder many things including that thing called hope that we all have to hold onto.