The horrors of Toul Sleng

I have been putting off writing about Toul Sleng genocide museum because I know I can’t possibly convey the atrocities that happened there. I can’t even imagine them even though I try. It’s partly because I don’t want to be able to understand that much pain or evil. I don’t know what the victims went through before they died or what the survivors have to live with daily. I don’t know if the people who carried out the torture, killings and gang rapes were monsters or normal people in an incomprehensible position. I can’t imagine how they live now, in hiding or perhaps bartering with their conscience for every day that they go on living.

What happened in Toul Sleng prison, or S-21, is however an important part of history and I feel like, even if I don’t do a very good job, I should do my best to raise awareness. Before I went to Cambodia I had no idea about its recent history and even if I were old enough to remember the Pol Pot regime I doubt I would have tried to learn more about it. I don’t think I’m the only one. Cambodia is a long way away from most people after all.
It is not really known how many people passed through the doors of S-21, but I have seen estimates of between 17,000 and 30,000. Some figures take into account the children who were killed and others do not. At any rate the number of survivors is horrifying, there are believed to be less than 20.
Before we even began to explore the place we were told about the last fourteen people killed in this place, the bodies were found in the interrogation rooms and had been there since the place had been abandoned. The bodies were so decomposed as to be unrecognisable but it is known that one was a woman. The fourteen were buried on the lot and their graves are one of the first things a visitor will see. There is also a photograph of one of the bodies on a metal bed, its skin is blackened by rot and its body bloated and disfigured.

Barbed wire has been stretched over one of the buildings, a former school, and this was used to stop prisoners from jumping out of the windows. The cells, shackles and waste facilities (buckets) were extremely crude. There were improvised torture devices on display. One was the handle and rod of an umbrella and one a walking stick. I imagine that the whole place must have stunk of death, unwashed bodies and waste when it was in use.
There are photographs of the prisoners, taken for records, throughout the buildings. Some seem to have been beaten and their faces are swollen. Others look frightened, defiant or even unaware of what is going on. Some manage a little smile for the camera. The photographs of the children were the ones I found the most haunting. Or the photographs of mothers with their babies behind them or in their arms, the babies did not merit their own picture.
Some of the worst things were not part of displays like the rust stains on the floor from shackles, the bars in the garden used for torture (one did not look tall enough for an adult to be suspended from). I also had the nagging feeling that the displays had been toned down considerably, some of the images had been defaced and some of the worst images, such as photographs of the dead, were out of the way and few in number. This is understandable as many people still have memories of this time and would be particularly traumatic for the regime’s survivors.

While I was doing some research for this I came across a documentary called ‘the Conscience of Nhem En’, he was the prison photographer at Toul Sleng. Here in a clip from the film:

The following is an excerpt from the director’s production Diary:

‘Yesterday, all day at the prison, we interviewed Nhem En. He smiled through my questions about what it was like to witness the last moments of thousands of people’s lives. At one point, he bristled and said, “What am I supposed to do? Sit around and cry about the past?”

He lied. He said he was unaware of torture at the prison, but later admitted he heard people screaming all day long. He said that the guards never touched the female prisoners because they would be punished if they did. But it is well known that they regularly and brutally raped the women. In some of the Nhem En’s own photos, the young women’s faces are swollen from being punched.

I pressed him hard. His casual tone about the suffering that passed in front of his lens made me hostile. I suppose I wanted him to apologize for his part in the horror. I told him that the photographs he took are cold and cruel, without compassion, and I felt it reflected the photographer. He got angry, threatened to stop the interview, and said we couldn’t see any of his personal photos unless we paid him $10,000. I told him we would pay him the same honorarium we paid the other interviewees, about $500 to compensate for their time. Suddenly, he turned jovial again, slapped me on the back, as if to say “just kidding,” and called me his friend’.