Tuol Sleng - Unchained Melody - CycleBlaze

December 7, 2023

Tuol Sleng

No Photos

Tuol Sleng

Andrea and I experienced Tuol Sleng Prison in 2008.  I was horrified and it affected me to a degree I had never felt before.  Today I chose to go back there.  Understandably, Andrea said she couldn't.  I wanted to take photos because I want people to see.  In this post I will not include any photos.  The next post will be devoted to photos I took at Tuol Sleng today. 

After visiting Tuol Sleng today, and rereading what I wrote about my experience 15 years ago, I decided to post it because I have nothing more to add except that I'm glad to see that absolutely nothing has changed there. 

Here is what I wrote in 2008:

Here in Phnom Penh they have changed the name of Tuol Sleng Prison to Tuol Sleng Museum and that's where we spent much of the day.  I have never visited Auschwitz or the other Nazi concentration camps but I imagine Tuol Sleng is similar.  The Cambodians have left it just the way the Vietnamese found it when they liberated Phnom Penh of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

One of the most chilling things about Tuol Sleng is that it was a high school before the Khmer Rouge started using it as a torture facility.  The rooms are classrooms complete with blackboards and nice tile floors but in the middle of each room is a single iron bed - no mattress, no pillow, no bedding - just a simple single iron bed frame now rusting.  No one seems to ever touch the iron beds.  They rest silent in each of the classrooms and rust falls from the mattress-less grate and from each of the legs to accumulate in little piles on the stained tiles. Some of the rooms have a rusty metal ammunition box in which the torturers kept their insidious instruments of torture.  Some rooms also have a crude metal ankle shackle.  The only other thing in each room is a large photograph of one of the last victims tortured to death shackled to the skeletal metal bed frame.  It's hard to take and most people there were not talking.

Other classrooms were divided into a warren of tiny tiny cells where the Khmer Rouge detained people.  Larger classrooms had iron rings set into the floor where multiple ankle shackles could be locked.  Dozens of men, women and children were shackled to the floor lying on their backs to await their horrible fate.

The Khmer Rouge also took hundreds or thousands of photos of their victims just before they killed them.  Many of the photos were on display in several of the classrooms.  I will never forget the look in their eyes, especially the children.  They were completely terrorized and knew they were going to die.  None of them knew why.

The Khmer Rouge were creating an agrarian society free of money or contact with the rest of the world and therefore they needed to get rid of anyone who might resist such a project.  They killed all the educated, wealthy, intelligent, those who wore glasses, artists, doctors, lawyers and anyone who represented modern society.  Those from the big city of Phnom Penh were especially suspect and they suffered the most.

The Khmer Rouge took over when the Americans left the area in April 1975.  Then they began their rampage, torturing and killing until January 1979 when the Vietnamese took over part of the country.  Phnom Penh had 3 million people living in it in April 1975 but by June everyone had been force-marched to the countryside under the pretext that the Americans were going to bomb the city.   40,000 Khmer Rouge administrators remained in Phnom Penh but no one else.

All of this is hard to take in.  No one really knows how many people died from years of war and then years of genocide.  It was anywhere from one to three million, possibly more than half the population.  I wonder how many Americans today really understand what went on over here.  In various ways during the "American War" we created what would eventually happen in Cambodia and we did virtually nothing to stop the atrocities after we left.  The Khmer Rouge government even had a seat at the U.N. until 1990!

The last classroom had a lot of cracked skulls on display.  In order to save their precious bullets the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned their victims to death with shovels and wood rods.

It was quite an experience to be in Tuol Sleng High School today.  It was a very breezy day and the old wooden shutters clattered open and closed.  They have been left on their own to be either open or closed.  The roof is slowly caving in in places and the barbed wire that encloses the walkways have heavy coats of rust.

There were lots of tourists there from all over the world and some Cambodians too.  Never have I been to an exhibit of any kind where just about everybody read every word of explanations, and there were a lot of them too.  Most people were silent as they moved from room to room stunned by what went on there.  Gusts moved through the open windows as if they were great sighs.  There was an incredible heaviness and sorrow there.  I waver between wanting the rust to accelerate and for the roof to cave in completely and the whole place to turn to dust and wanting the place to never change and always be a reminder to us all how horrible we can be to each other and how senseless that is.  In that way and only in that way it is fitting that Tuol Sleng used to be a school - it still is.

Addendum:  Finally, the major architect, whose ill-conceived plans of bombing Cambodia put everything in place and made it possible for Pol Pot to rise in power and do such awful things, is dead.  Good riddance Henry Kissinger.


Rate this entry's writing Heart 11
Comment on this entry Comment 1
Gregory GarceauYour description of Tuol Sleng Prison is excellent--too excellent. Even though I've never physically been there, I join Andrea in never wanting to go there again. In fact, after reading this page, I was afraid to look at the pictures on the next page. I looked anyway.
Reply to this comment
2 months ago