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Andy’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 28 Jan 2007

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Another day in Phnom Penh, and another chance to explore the dark recesses of the human psyche.

Security Prison 21, also known as Tuol Sleng (an apt name that translates as Hill of the Poisonous Trees) was a complex that nearby workers termed "the place where people went in but never came out". Codenamed S-21, the facility was originally a High School but became the epicentre of a vast and sophisticated network of interrogation and imprisonment. Where once it educated children, from 1975 to 1979 it was peverted to educate its inmates and the cambodian population in terror and obedience.

An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng during the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge. In the early months of the revolution most of the victims were soldiers and government officials from the previous Lon Nol regime or doctors, intellectuals, engineers and monks; bastions of the old society. Later, as paranoia took hold of the party leadership the machinery of state and oppression was turned on its own rank and file and the revolution began to devour itself.
Khmer Rouge members and soldiers viewed by Pol Pot as potential turncoats were accused of espionage, arrested and forced to accept fictitious confessions which accused their friends and family; so the prison population was replenished and the ranks of those liquidated increased.

The most important prisoners were held in Block A. These former classrooms each contained a rusting iron bedframe and torture instrument. I looked outside through a small window with bars across it. The day was beautiful, and the sun cast long strips of light across the tiled floor. It would have been hard to imagine the horror that took place in these rooms had it not been for the black and white photograph in each room showing the space as it was found by the liberating Vietnamese. Moving closer to each picture the abstract black and grey forms came into focus - the mutilated, swollen face and body of an inmate, chained to the bed and killed by his fleeing captors only hours before the prison was captured.

Outside Block A was a notice pinned to the wall listing the strict security regulations each prisoner was expected to follow. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison's guards. Any disobedience was punished sadistically.

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Donít turn them away.

2. Donít try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.

3. Donít 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. Donít 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. Donít make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.

9. If you donít follow all the above rules, you shall get many 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.

Less important prisoners were crammed into small, crude and dank cells in Block C but not before they were forced to strip naked, and all their possessions removed. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar and sleep on the floor. Sanitary and health conditions were unsurprisingly awful. Such unhygienic living conditions caused skin diseases, lice, dysentry and other ills. Medical treatment was rarely offered in a place that disrespected life so fundamentally.

Prisoners who were not casualties of the awful conditions were subjected to horrific torture designed to make them confess to whatever crimes their captors charged them with. Suffocation, electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments, the violent removal of fingernails and extremities broke both body and mind. Outside Block A were two large pots. Detainees were strung up by their hands (which were tied behind their backs), when the excrutiating pain caused unconsciousness they were dunked in these vats of water and the cycle repeated.

A variety of torture implements were on display in Block D, overlooked by paintings illustrating their actual use. Interestingly a waterboard was on diplay. According to Wikipedia "This form of torture consists of immobilizing an individual and pouring water over his face to simulate drowning, which produces a severe gag reflex, making the subject believe his death is imminent". This practice is unfortunately not confined to the past, or genocidal regimes. Late last year it was reported, by CIA agents amongst others, that the Bush administration had authorized the use of waterboarding against detainees in its War on Terror. In an interview with the media Vice President Dick Cheney had the following exchange:

Hennen: "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?"

Cheney: "Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

Those who suffered in the prison would strongly disagree.

In Tuol Sleng this and other forms of torture claimed on average 100 victims a day during 1977. B-block has been turned into a memorial for those that entered the prison but never came back out. It was the most chilling part of the museum. Inmates were photographed, numbered (dehumanized) and required to give complete biographical information. The rooms are now lined, floor to ceiling, with black and white photographs of these individuals and their designated number. Thousands of faces gaze out onto the rooms where theye suffered. Men, women and (so many!) children. Some display remarkable expressions of defiance, others a knowing, resigned smile. Many more predicatably stare wide-eyed with a tangible sense of fear. Those pictures diplaying the moment of death, or just afterwards were deeply upsettling and i had to leave the room.

Only seven people are known to have survived. Just three are still alive: Vann Nath, Chum Mey and Bou Meng. All three were had skills judged to be useful. Vann Nath, formerly trained as an artisit was ordered to paint pictures of Pol Pot. Later, with the end of the regime he set to work painting events he witnessed or was told took place in the prison. Many of them are now on display in the museum.

Sound was swallowed in the long corridors, torture chambers and bare-walled rooms. No one spoke. Even the city soundtrack of car horns, crowds and construction sites was muted. It was a relief to leave, enveloped once again in the noise and chaos of Phnom Penh.

Sorry for such a grim post, but that is the reality if you want to explore Cambodia (or many other countries). Do not get a warped view of the country however. The next few posts are much brighter.