Facing History at S-21: Cambodian Genocide Museum

Modern atrocities, like those carried out in Orlando, Brussels and Paris, surprise and shock us all. But history reveals countless examples of individuals and groups who have perpetrated evil throughout time.

I have seen the wreckage that hatred, self-interest or Machiavellian narcissism have left behind. The Nazi concentration and death camps in Germany and Eastern Europe are an example to us all, but one which we are still learning from.

When I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I didn't expect to be moved in any significant way. Having studied so many genocides, wars and acts of hatred, I have become somewhat desensitized to historical death and destruction (both of my university degrees are in history). I approach these things with a focus on the facts, because I want to learn.

But Cambodia was different. The fallout from the Cambodian genocide, led by the Khmer Rouge regime, stared me right in the face. Inspired by Stalin and Mao, the Khmer Rouge exacted a reign of terror that would claim over 2 million lives - a quarter of the country's population. The primary victims of the 1975-1979 genocide were the young people who would be the elders of today. They are a lost generation and, as a result, Cambodia is a youthful country.

My trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a powerful and emotional experience. I'd like to share with you some of the photos and stories from that visit, and I'll talk a bit about the museum's wheelchair accessibility.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Walled property, with a gate on a street corner opened to the museum. Sign above the gate reads TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM.
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Tuol Sleng, a former high school, became the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) in 1975. At S-21, the Khmer Rouge regime held, interrogated, tortured and executed prisoners - the majority of whom were innocent.

As with most public school facilities, the Tuol Sleng campus sat in the middle of a community. The horrors that occurred inside S-21 were concealed behind a fortified wall and barbed wire. Only a handful of the S-21 prisoners would live to tell of the atrocities carried out there.

A ticket booth sits just inside the main entrance gate (pictured above). Admission is priced at $2 USD per person. Audio guides in multiple languages are available. I was offered complimentary admission, due to the limited accessibility within the museum.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: The camp's 10 rules for behavior posted on a sign just inside the prison gate.
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One of the first things you'll see when entering the main courtyard of the prison (now museum) are a list of 10 security regulations. These rules were imposed on the prisoners. Additional violence and torture would be directed at those who failed to observe the rules. The text is copied below:

  1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don't turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
  9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Steps leading to a building prevent wheelchair access.
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The self-guided tour of the buildings is largely inaccessible to wheelchairs, due to a step (or steps) at the entrance of all but one building. The photo above shows one of the smallest curb-like barriers. A manual wheelchair user could be lifted with the assistance of others, but I use a power wheelchair that is too heavy for that. Installation of a ramp here would be cheap and easy, and I have reached out via e-mail to the museum staff to see what can be done to improve accessibility.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Steps leading to a building prevent wheelchair access.
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The photo above is another example of steps that prevent access to a building. While a more substantial ramp would be needed here, it can and should be done.

While ramps would permit access to the ground floor, some buildings also have exhibits on the upper (2nd) floor. These could not be made accessible with a ramp. But, I am never upset by a lack of access to upper floors in old, historic buildings - particularly those in developing countries. The ground floors of each building should be opened to wheelchairs.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Restrain bed in an empty room at S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
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I was able to peek into some of the inaccessible buildings. This room, partially seen through a doorway, held a bed that was used to restrain prisoners. The bed was left here after Pol Pot's regime fell.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Wooden gallows in the courtyard at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
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Prior to the Cambodian Genocide, children climbed and played on the wooden frame pictured above. When the Khmer Rouge took control of the campus and turned it into a prison, the frame was repurposed and became an instrument of torture.

Prisoners were hung upside down with their hands tied behind the back. Their bodies would be stretched until they passed out. The cauldrons below the gallows were filled with human excrement, and the unconscious prisoners were lowered into a rancid stew of urine and feces.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Level, barrier free entrance to Building D at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
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Building D, at the far end of the courtyard, is wheelchair accessible. The entryway is level with the sidewalk outside, and the doors are wide enough for even the largest power wheelchairs.

The exhibits in this building focused on the prisoners and their experience in the camp. A device used in the waterboarding of prisoners is also displayed there.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: A display containing photos of prisoners in S-21 Tuol Sleng.
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The Khmer Rouge maintained detailed records for each of the prisoners at S-21. Their numbers totaled between 17,000 and 20,000, with up to 1,500 had in the camp at any given time. The display shown here contains 10 pictures of prisoners who were brought to S-21.

As I mentioned before, the prisoners were young people - even children. Had they survived, those pictured on this display would be in their 50s and 60s.

Final Thoughts

S-21 was a death sentence. But the Khmer Rouge would not carry out that sentence until they extracted a written confession. The charge was usually "espionage." There would be no trial. Regimes of terror are never concerned with justice. Only the maintenance of their power.

Of the 17,000 to 20,000 who entered S-21, only 7 are known to have survived. Only two of those 7 remain with us. The statistic is shocking. S-21 was an execution center. The prisoners were tortured until they gave their violators what they sought: a confession. They were then summarily executed, disposed of in the mass graves near to Phnom Penh.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Monument to the S-21 victims.
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A memorial to the victims of S-21 was erected in front of Building D. In multiple languages, it reads:

Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.

We must not forget. Evil is powerfully destructive. Lastly, for perspective: a story similar to this one played out in more than 150 others prisons across the country. S-21 was not an isolated incident.

If you travel to Cambodia, you will recognize the absence of the generation that was lost. It is hard to miss, in a country of just 15 million.

  • Kim-Ling Richardson (Travel-Li

    Such a devastating history, but it’s important not to forget and to hope that we all learn from it and make a better future. Great you reached out to see if they can install some ramps. I hope they respond and are able to make this place more accessible to all travellers.

  • Erika Bisbocci

    Your statistic of only 7 survivors out of 17,000 sent shivers down my spine. I remember reading about Tuol Sleng in university and can’t imagine what a horrifying experience the Cambodian Genocide would have been to live through. Even visiting must have been such an emotional experience…

    • I actually met one of the seven survivors there. He was very fortunate, and he said so himself. I am just grateful to the 7 (now 2) who are sharing this story with the rest of us.

  • It’s incredible how our history is full of terrors, and innocent people keep dying for political and fanatic reasons!
    Great post, and I’m sad to see one more important sight that lacks accessibility. This is a huge problem here in Southeast Asia. Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Cheers,
    Nat

  • I was horrified when I went here. The killing fields is also another place that I went to that was tough. Well done for reaching out to them regarding the accessibility of the place. They don’t give much thought to it here in SEA.

  • Wow. There are no words. Must be a hard place to visit but I know it’s important. Thanks for sharing!

  • Laura Lynch

    You’re so right, John. There have been terrorist acts all throughout time. Today it just looks a little different. I have such a hard time walking through museums like this one because of all the tragedy and pain that was suffered in these places.

  • Melody Pittman

    Wow, I had no idea about these tragedies. Thanks so much for the history and opening my eyes to what happened there. I know it would have been hard, it was even hard for me just reading it.

  • The Khmer Rouge were unbelievably horrible. The loss Cambodia suffered is hard to imagine, a quarter of the population. 🙁 To think they were not even allowed to cry.

  • Megan Claire

    I agree with you that we must never forget such horrible atrocities. Museums like this are so important to preserve history and ensure we do not repeat history. I’m sorry to hear that most of the property was largely inaccessible to wheelchairs – I’m glad you managed to still make your way around as best as possible though 🙂

  • I’m sorry that you struggled to get around the site, having been I can understand why, particularly the two story buildings with no elevator access.
    We found visiting S21 overwhelmingly sad, but an import site to visit and learn and try an understand the horrors that were committed there. All people visiting Cambodia should visit as a reminder of what happens when evil people are left unchecked.

    • The funding doesn’t exist for elevators, but access to the ground floor is easy enough to create. Cambodia has a lot of wheelchair users, and one of the largest populations of amputees in the world, due to land mines left over from the Pol Pot era.

  • Mags

    It’s so unfortunate that history keeps repeating itself in this way, but I think its great that buildings like this one and the concentration camps in Germany are kept as museums to remind people the dangers of allowing such people to come into power.

    • They are also a very important tribute to the victims – and a way for families to understand what happened to their loved ones.

  • Buddy The Traveling Monkey

    It’s so hard for me to understand how anyone could commit such atrocities. Unfortunately, they do happen so it is important for places like this to remain so that future generations can learn and hopefully not do the same things.

    • My historian side is going to come out for a minute. You should check out Christopher Browning’s book, “Ordinary Men” – It tells the story of a Wehrmacht police battalion in Hitler’s Germany. The men were doctors, school teachers, librarians, mechanics, business owners… ordinary men. And they helped start the mass murders of the Holocaust. Of course we all say, “I would never have done that” – but the stories in that book made me less confident in that statement. Amazon link: http://amzn.to/29klT82

  • Jennifer @ Made all the Differ

    I am so sorry that you didn’t get to go inside a lot of the museum. I hope by your visit some changes were made. I am glad they are remembering/acknowledging the genocide. It is important to learn from these things.

  • Lauren @BonVoyageLauren

    Wow. This was hard to read but I think we need more posts about places like these. It’s so important to visit and share our experiences.

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