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Visit to S-21 (Day 8)

I am not an expert on Cambodian history. I've paraphrased the following summary of Cambodia’s recent political history from the Lonely Planet.

The Khmer Rouge, a Cambodian revolutionary movement, took control of Cambodia on 1975. Leading the Khmer Rouge was Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Its goal was to transform Cambodia into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative – to basically set the country back to year 0. In reality this involved entire populations from cities being forced to work long hours with little food in the countryside. Disease stalked many of these work camps. Intellectuals were systematically wiped out – speaking foreign languages, being able to read or even wearing glasses was reason enough to be killed.

The Vietnamese, who liberated an almost empty Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979, brought the Khmer Rouge rule to an end. It is still not known how many people died during the Khmer Rouge rule. The most excepted estimate is at least 1.7 million people or 21% of the country's population. Yale University have been collating and mapping key events and documents to ensure information on this period is open to the public - www.yale.edu/cgp.

Our final morning in Phnom Penh was spent on a harrowing visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the former security office 21 (S21). Previously the area had been a primary and high school, but it was converted into an office designed for the detention, interrogation and torture detainees; many of who were accused of being foreign spies or of trying to lead uprisings against the Khmer Rouge.

We spent an hour wandering around the building blocks one by one. There were stories from survivors as well as the prison guards. There were also autobiographies of all the key members of the Khmer Rouge. Some of the rooms held pictures of the bodies found in them when S21 was liberated.
Some of the classrooms had been made into small wooden or brick cells

Some of the classrooms had been made into small wooden or brick cells

The outside of the school buildings - covered in barbed wire to prevent escape and suicide

The outside of the school buildings - covered in barbed wire to prevent escape and suicide

Every prisoner arriving at S21 was photographed. Thousands of these haunting photographs consume room after room. It was very hard to walk through each room and see the men, women and young children, the vast majority of whom were executed at Choeung Ek, staring back at you.
Room after room filled with sombre portrait shots of the prisoners of S21. Very few survived.

Room after room filled with sombre portrait shots of the prisoners of S21. Very few survived.

A very depressing way to spend a morning, but we were both glad we went. The museum aims to keep the atrocities that happened in places like S21 in the memory of both foreign visitors and Cambodians, in the hope that this will never be allowed to happen again.

Posted by Lynne Woolley 07:47 Archived in Cambodia

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