Tuol Sleng was a highschool in Phnom Penh that was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison. Men, women and children were tortured into naming names, creating a vicious cycle of thousands of innocent people being tortured and eventually killed. When the Vietnamese captured the city in 1979, they located the prison by the smell. While people were generally not killed in the facility (unless they died during torture), the Khmer Rouge had left in such a hurry that the remaining 14 prisoners had their throats slashed, and were left to decompose. The Vietnamese took a photo of each room as they found it, and this photo is now displayed in the room, along with the articles that were present – a metal bed, gas can for urination, and box for fecal matter. Sometimes, torture tools were also present. Upstairs, makeshift cells dividing the former classrooms housed hundreds of prisoners. The cells are unchanged since liberation, and bloodstains are still present on the floors.

Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented everything. We know approximately 20,000 people were brought through this facility. Before entering, each person had a photograph taken, and in this prison-turned-museum, each photograph along with the names of the individuals and date of arrest is displayed. Rooms after room after room of these photos are on display. Women with newborn babies and young children were not excluded from the torture and eventual death. Some, including children, have their ID tags pinned directly through their skin. What upset me the most however, was the looks on the faces of these people. Some were clearly terrified, others resigned to their fate, and others still were smiling. Perhaps they had no idea what was to come? Perhaps it’s a strange reaction we all have, to smile when someone points a camera at you. I don’t know. But looking into their eyes was heartbreaking. The pictures were so modern. These people were the age of my parents.
Our guide was also a victim of the regime. She told us the following story:
“I was 10 years old in 1975, and I remember everything. My father, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, they all died. Boys and girls were separated. My shoulder was swollen from carrying supplies to the camps. My shoulder hurt. I wanted to tell someone, but I can’t. So I was quiet. I moved back to Phnom Penh in 1983”.
It killed me. I even get welled up thinking about it. She turned to Mike and I and asked “My English, do you understand what I’m saying?”. We could only nod.
What I felt like saying was, I can understand the words you speak, but I cannot understand all this. And I still can’t. I just can’t wrap my mind around it.