Tuol Sleng Museum

Today I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum. As you can imagine, there is normally a difference between my scriblings on this blog and what gets recorded in my personal journal. Today is a day for these two to merge – so here are my thoughts as I sat at the museum earlier todaym extracted directly from my journal because I feel it’s important that my raw thoughts are not filtered.

”I am sitting at the Tuol Sleng museum, site of the former S21 of the Kampuchea Denocratic. The building is in the heart of the city and before Pol Pot seized control was a high school. Sitting here now on a bench under a tree with birds singing their choruses, it is easy to imagine how the school had once been a haven of learning and understanding for the young people and open minds of Cambodia. In 1975, it was turned into a prison for internment, interrogation and torture of ‘traitors’ of the regime. Thousands were killed here between 1975 and 7 January 1979 when the regime was overturned.

There are four buildings. In each, you can still make out that each one used to be a school room – old hooks on the walls where the blackboard once hung, a a space alongside it where the teacher’s desk would have been, in front of which would have been rows of desks peopled by eager young minds. That the building was once a school makes its later function even more terrifying and barbaric.

As I walked from cell to cell, classroom to classroom, there were tiny unintentional touches of beauty – a randomly different floor tile or the intricate headboard of a brass bedstead. Not put there with the feelings of the prisoners in mind, and I was left wondering whether it would be possible for any of the inhabitants to have found beauty in this place during those times.

Some of the classrooms had been kept to their original size and were used to house dozens of prisoners lying on the floor, two rows meeting with their feet along the middle of the room from the back wall to the blackboard, feet shackled to an iron bar running the length of the room. The side walls were numbered, presumably each number representing a prisoner. No names or humanity allowed here.

There are other rooms that are sub-divided into tiny cells just a metre wide and a couple of metres long. On the ground floor the dividing walls are bricks, on the upper floors they are wooden. The smell on these upper floors was old wood, like you experience walking around an old stately home in the UK.

So much of the torture equipment was left behind when the regime fell and S21 was abandoned – tools for beating, tweaking, cutting, drowning and electrfying men, women and children. I was reminded of the accussations of torture that have been levelled against countries like my own and felt sick to the stomach to think that anyone acting in my name would ever use these instruments.

Perhaps the most difficult but essential thing was the photos. The torturers were clinical in their documentation of who came into the prison, their treatments, confessions and outcomes. There were thousands of mugshots. Many faces were passive and indifferent, no doubt in shock or denial about what lay ahead. A few appear to be smiling – perhaps excited to be having their photo taken for the first time, unaware or unbelieving of their fate. But many showed their utter terror, pleading with the man behind the camera, desperate to be spared. The photos of women with their children, some just babies, hit me hardest. That a child would even have to be in this place, let alone risk seeing or being subjected to torture is unbearable.

The photos affected me greatly. I really didn’t want to go on, didn’t want to see another face or look into another pair of eyes. But I had to look each man, woman and child in the eye, as if to bear witness to their suffering.

Afterwards, I watched a documentary about a man and woman who were killed in S21, told through their family, friends and neighbours who were left behind. Most harrowing of all was to hear from a man who worked in S21, who drove prisoners to their deaths in the killing fields. He talked about the fact that he helped to kill 5 people by hitting them on the back of the head with an iron bar before they had their throats cut and were flung into mass graves. He was at pains to say that he only did this when the warden was watching and that he never cut anyone’s throat. It is somehow difficult to judge someone in that position. We want to believe that if had been us we would rather have died ourselves than taking part in these attrocities, but we have the good fortune to never have had to make that choice. While this man came away with his life, he is also left with shame and self-disgust, I would imagine.

While I have been away I have been trying hard not to think about my work. Yes, I love what I do, but I knew I had to switch off properly in order to feel the benefit of 3 months off – go back refreshed and ready to start the next chapter of my life. But today has reminded me why I do what I do. It pales in comparison to the suffering I saw today, but I know first-hand how war and fighting impacts on ordinary people and their families after my uncle was kidnapped in Colombia in 1997. That event was seminal in setting the course of my professional life, so determined was I to understand and make sense of what happened, try in my own small way to prevent it and through Hostage UK to help ease the suffering of those affected. I know in the scheme of things, my contribution is tiny. But today reminded me that it is important and has renewed my commitment to this work. As I sit here in a beautiful garden terrace cafe opposite the old S21 prison drinking an Angkor beer about to enjoy some Khmer cuisine, I can see the buildings opposite behind their corrugated iron and barbed wire fence and the contrast couldn’t be greater. To think that Cambodia has recovered – physically and emotionally – from this terrifying episode in just 30 years is truly inspiring.”

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