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.
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This past week Mike and I visited Cambodia. I will be writing a few entries on this, because the experience shook me to the core. First a bit about the country: Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy of 13 million people. It has an amazing history, and was the centre of the Khmer Empire, one of the most successful in the history of Asia. They had a complex and sophisticated society from approximately the 1st-14th centuries. As a tour guide explained to us, from the 14th century until the 1990s Cambodia experienced a dark and sad history.

Throughout this time, Cambodia was fought over between the Vietnamese and Thai Empires. Eventually, in the mid 1800s it was “colonized” by the French, who like any Imperialist force, exploited the country’s resources and people until 1953, when Cambodia gained independence. The country began to develop and prosper until the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, who sought to transform society back into its original “pure” agricultural state. The means to this end included emptying the cities and massacring the educated, the professionals, doctors, nurses, and even those who wore glasses. It is estimated that more than 2 million were killed from 1975-9.
Cambodia has only known peace since 1998, and even then the odd armed clash breaks out, most recently in 2000, when 60 people were killed in Phnom Penh. The landmines planted during these conflicts continue to wreak havoc, the resulting in Cambodia having the largest number of amputees per capita, with 1 in every 236 people having lost one or more limbs, not to mention those that didn’t survive. In a country where the government is corrupt and broke and social services are non-existent, NGO’s and donations from foreign countries are the only means in place to help the aged, disabled, and the orphaned in this country. It’s a pretty bleak picture, but it improves every day.
All of that being said, Cambodia is a fascinating, beautiful and wonderful place, with kind and fantastic people. And to repeat an old cliché, this trip was something we will never forget.
So that is the context. The next few blogs will hopefully provide some details of the experiences we had over 5 short days in this amazing place.