In the past 10 years or so I have seen many school buildings in developing countries, and the Tuol Sleng high school looked just like that, from the outside. A big school, several buildings, three stories high, galleries with classrooms, and a school yard with lovely Frangipani trees.
(1) The former Tuol Sleng high school.
Except that this school had been turned into the number one prison and torture chamber of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to end 1978. A strange mix of communist, nationalist, ruralist, anti-bourgeois, the Khmer Rouge had been fighting an equally illegitimate right-wing military regime, and when they took Phnom Penh in April 1975, many Cambodians initially welcomed them as liberators, who would put an end to civil war. And they did, but at what price, establishing Year Zero of a new Democratic Kampuchea – Democratic as in the first D of the DDR, or Democratic as in the DR of North Korea, but with an even more cruel twist. Lunatics. Estimates of people killed run between 15-25%, some even suggest 40%, of the population of 7 million, and that in less than 4 years. Nazi Germany was child’s play, compared to this. Anyhow, there is much written on this part of Cambodian history, and much more knowledgeable than I can reproduce here.
The Tuol Sleng high school cum prison has been turned into a museum, to ensure history will never be forgotten. Wandering through the buildings is indeed an impressive experience, not so much for what there is to see, what has been displayed, but more for what you imagine would have been reality here. One building especially seems to be still quite original, with brick subdivisions on the ground floor, wooden cells on the first and second floor, one by two meters: you could hardly lay down, let alone move around here. A small hole to the outside presumably was the drain, for everything, except water for washing, because that was only supplied once a week. The galleries were fenced off with barbed wire, to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. As if they could still move, after the various forms of torture that had been applied to obtain the most ridiculous confessions – some suggestive paintings in one of the buildings provide an idea, of the torture, not the confessions. Abu Ghraib?, also child’s play.
(2) Class room adjusted to hold multiple mini-cells, and (3) one of these cells, note the drainage hole in the wall.
(4) Barbed wire.
Numbers don’t mean much here. Almost everybody who got in, died, in one way or another. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos of the victims, I didn’t count them, and just to make sure, in the last room there are also around 200 skulls, with clearly visible bullet holes, or massive cracks to the head from where these people had been bludgeoned to death. People just randomly selected, who hadn’t done anything wrong. Or people that had worn glasses, or owned a book, or knew a foreign language, that clearly qualified as “something wrong”.
(5) One of the photo galleries.
(6) The regulations, obviously this is not the original notice, which has been removed – I wonder whether it ever was posted in English, in the first place -, but it gives you an idea.
Right next to the skull room, if I may call it that, there is the tourist shop, selling souvenirs, the usual knick-knack, scarves, silver jewelry. Some of the tourists were shopping, after all, what’s the difference, no?, just another tourist stop, and the bus is leaving again in ten minutes.
I cannot stop thinking about the Cambodians, we find them so nice, friendly, helpful. Who were the ones who did this, then? Who instigated the Killing Fields? Pol Pot was not alone.
(7) And one colourful photo, nothing to do with the prison. She is, in any case, too young to have been part of it. Selling Frangipani flowers for offering in the Buddhist temple.