PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — It’s hard to imagine this place was a prison, until you experience its contents. Once, it was a school. Then came the Khmer Rouge. Classrooms became cells and torture chambers. Fencing installed for the safety of students was replaced by electrified barbed wire to keep “prisoners” from escaping. In its lifetime, this collection of five buildings has had three names. Tuol Svay Pray High School…then S-21 (Security Prison 21)…and today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the first two words mean “Hill [of] Strychnine.”
We’d been prepared for this venture, as much as you can be prepared for seeing tiny skulls, shocking and graphic photographs and confined spaces that strain the bounds of humanity. One of the owners of AmaWaterways, Kristin Karst, is a perpetually happy person who goes everywhere with her customers. She tells us she’s taking a pass on this shore excursion from the new AmaDara.
She is right.
What happened here in the late ‘70s is indefensible. All prisoners were photographed — many photographs of the victims are part of the museum today — and interrogated while being tortured. They were forced to name family members and close associates, who then became part of the cycle of torture and ultimate death.
We are told there were nine survivors. Some reports say the number may have been as many as 12. Of thousands…between 17,000 and 20,000. Whatever the number, they survived because they had skills useful to the Khmer Rouge. Three are still alive. Two are here, Chum Mey (right) and Bou Meng, selling books that tell their stories and to warn future generations. They remain the public faces of this sad part of human history.
S-21 was one of 150 Cambodian prisons where these evil deeds were committed. Neighbourhood buildings were places soldiers raped prisoners. Those who didn’t die in the prison were taken to The Killing Fields, which today is an historical site about 30 minutes from S-21.
It’s just as moving as the prison, but less gut-wrenching, perhaps because of the initial shock. There are more skulls — “They find more all the time,” says our guide, “but they have enough.” There are mass graves. The monsoons each year continue to unearth more evidence of what happened, more fragments of clothing, more human remains.
There are 127 such burial sites in Cambodia.
How can something so sad be so compelling? How can people like us suggest to people like you that going there is a good idea because, as “shore excursions” go, these are obviously not pleasant experiences? But they serve a purpose. They are “Cambodia.” They aren’t Disneyland.
As the survivors say, preserving this part of history may prevent its recurrence. It’s also a testament to the Cambodian people, who live in peace and with forgiveness for what happened. And charging entrance fees to the museums is one small way to contribute to the economy of this impoverished land of now 15 million people.
It is worth the trip.
But once is enough.
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