S21 - Facing History

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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Mug shots of a few of the victims of S21.
There are display cabinets filled with the skulls of victims in one of the rooms. But it's difficult to empathise with bones; they could have come from any time, any place back in the mists of history. Bones are sexless, impersonal, distant. No, it's not the skulls that really get you, it's the mug shots. Row upon row of black and white faces following your progress as you walk the white and amber tiles of former classrooms. They're silent, these faces, but they remain more eloquent than any statistic could ever be. Even this one:

Some 20,000 people passed through Phnomh Penh's Security Prison 21 between 1975 and 1979. Only 7 of them survived.

The faces of thousands of these victims cover the cream walls and display boards, looking into a 1970s camera lens, looking out at you today.
One of the larger classrooms/cells/torture rooms at Tuol Sleng.
They are by turns ugly, beautiful, old, young (some are children, no more than babies), proud, stubborn, bruised, battered, frightened. One or two are even, who can guess why, smiling. You walk amongst them, remnants of lives preserved behind glass. Some of them seem to appear more than once and it becomes a diabolical game of 'Guess Who?' You spot an unusual haircut, a floppy-collared 70s shirt. Did you see that face before? You aren't quite sure now.        

And what did they do, these people, to end up here? To end their lives chained in tiny cells of wood, brick and concrete; beaten, forced to confess to imaginary offences time and again; tortured to death or executed in bloody batches at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
A no speaking sign. Mostly unnecessary.
They simply knew too much, were too well educated, worked for a previous government, were born to the wrong parents, said the wrong thing at the wrong time. If they had lived, many of them would have been less than ten years older than me. There, but for grace of birth and circumstance, go I.

These faces reveal a period (1975-1979) that has marked, and will continue to mark this country, for generations. Like so many groups before them in other nations, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge cribbed a political ideology, corrupted it to fit their own ideas, and then applied it an inflexibly brutal way. They led the country into a bloody spiral of cultural destruction and paranoia-fuelled purging. They were eventually defeated by the Vietnamese in 1979, but in 5 years of control they decimated the population, conducting a genocidal rule that claimed a reported 2 million plus lives.

The Tuol Sleng Museum, previously Security Prison 21 (S21), previously Tuol Svey Prey High School, tells a vital part of this story. Beyond the displays of skulls, the boards of written history, the old torture equipment, this story lives on most tellingly in the expressions of those that suffered in these cream-painted classrooms.  The proverb goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. If so, then an unwritten history of millions awaits any visitor to this immensely sad place.  
mybu84 says:
very powerfull writing this one.
Posted on: Aug 25, 2008
Saladin79 says:
Thanks Lana. Yeah, I saw the Aussie guy's photo; he's also mentioned on a display at Choeung Ek.

I went to the mine museum - interesting to read about Aki Ra's Khmer Rouge history and later defection. Sounds like he was a bit of a hard case at that point if you read a few of the stories!

I also randomly met an Italian guy (NGO employee) in Kampot who had come over to visit Aki Ra as they had become friends after meeting at a mine defusion course in the UK a few years back. He was telling me about the big mine problem they have now in Lebanon after the conflict with Israel a few years ago. Lots of old mines from cluster bombs apparently.

Doesn't look like the things are going away any time soon, treaty or no treaty.

Posted on: Jul 11, 2008
missl says:
Love your blog, I totally agree about S21. It got to me aswell. I remember walking around the classrooms and remembering that the year and the month I was born they started to kill the Combodians and a Australian journalist was murdered also.
Cambodia is so humbling , i am very glad i went there.
Did you to the Mine Musuem?
cheers lana
Posted on: Jul 10, 2008
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Mug shots of a few of the victims …
Mug shots of a few of the victims…
One of the larger classrooms/cells…
One of the larger classrooms/cell…
A no speaking sign. Mostly unneces…
A no speaking sign. Mostly unnece…
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk