Tuol Sleng, Cambodian for Nightmare.

Tuol Sleng, Cambodian for Nightmare.

By Duncan Stearn.

It ranks as the Southeast Asian equivalent of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags, monuments to the evil which mankind is capable of inflicting on his fellows.

In modern-day Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s still heavily French-influenced capital, the former prison and torture centre Tuol Sleng (located in Street 113, in the south of the city) is probably the number one tourist attraction.

In May 1976, just over a year after the Khmer Rouge, led by the French-educated Pol Pot, came to power and systematically emptied the streets of Phnom Penh of its inhabitants and drove them, at gunpoint, into the countryside, they established Tuol Sleng, or Security Office 21 (S-21). It was sited in the former high school of Tuol Svay Prey, first opened in 1962.

Tuol Sleng Prison

Tuol Sleng Prison – a former school

It was the biggest prison in what was then known as Kampuchea, surrounded by a double wall of corrugated iron and barbed wire. It was the Cambodian version of Auschwitz, except work wasn’t going to make you free. A brochure issued by the Cambodian Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture claims Tuol Sleng means a ‘poisonous hill or place on a mound to keep those who bear or supply guilt,’ in the Khmer language.

The former school consists of four oblong-shaped buildings. All the classrooms were converted to prison cells and the windows covered with iron bars. In one building were one-person separate cells, with an iron bedstead to which a prisoner would be shackled in leg-irons. In these rooms are faded black-and-white photos of the charred remains of many of the victims, usually lying on the bed. Apparently they were incinerated as the Vietnamese invaders, who came to overthrow Pol Pot, were at the gates of the city in January 1979.

The next classroom block had been turned into metre-wide, two-metre long cells with crude brick or wood partitions. The classrooms on the ground and first floors were divided into individual cells; the second floor was used for mass detention.

One of the buildings in Tuol Sleng Prison, a former school.

One of the buildings in Tuol Sleng Prison.

It’s the photographs that haunt. In an area where various torture devices are displayed, are row after row of black-and-white photos, head and shoulders shots of the men, women, and children who came to Tuol Sleng and never left alive. The fear in the eyes is palpable. The photos don’t require captions. The instruments of torture were crude, but effective.

According to the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, victims other than Cambodians included Thais, Laotians, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, British, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Australians. The Centre based its figures on the scrupulous records of the Khmer Rouge themselves.

When I first visited Tuol Sleng in January 2000, there was a crudely written list of 10 regulations -the Ten Commandments if you like- the prisoners had to observe hung above one of the single-cell rooms in the first building. The translation into English was almost comedic, were it not so evil. Number Three read ‘Do not be a fool for you are a chap who dares to thwart the revolution’; Number Six, ‘While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all’; and Number Nine, ‘If you do not follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.’ The list is still there, only now it’s a much neater, cleaner, and clearer custom-made sign.

The face of a criminal - according to the Khmer Rouge

The face of a criminal – according to the Khmer Rouge

Only seven of an estimated 20,000 prisoners survived Tuol Sleng over its four-year history. One of them was Vann Nath who was arrested in December 1977. He was beaten, tortured, and almost starved to death. Since he had been trained as an artist he was reprieved and set to work for a year painting and sculpting portraits of Pol Pot for display in Cambodian embassies and in other official edifices.

The place was turned into a museum in 1980. Vann Nath returned to paint the scenes of brutality that now adorn its walls.

Map of Cambodia at Tuol Sleng, made out of human skulls and bones

Map of Cambodia at Tuol Sleng, made out of human skulls and bones – now removed.

One of the grisliest exhibits used to be a map of Cambodia, made from the skulls and bones of victims of Tuol Sleng. It is now gone; replaced by a photograph, maybe as a sop to Western sensibilities.

Underneath the map were the statistics. From 17 April 1975 until 7 January 1979 it claimed 3,314,768 people had ‘disappeared’, 638,322 houses, 5,857 schools, 796 hospitals, 1,968 temples, and 104 mosques destroyed.

In 1992, in the wake of calls by the Khmer Rouge to King Sihanouk to close Tuol Sleng, the Washington Post reported, ‘Not only is this the symbol of the evil of the Khmer Rouge it is also a repository for records and evidence to be used for an eventual prosecution.’

As controversial documentary maker John Pilger has noted, ‘no peace was ever built on unrepudiated genocide; and the words “Never again” remain the cry of civilisation.’

© Duncan Stearn

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Location of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in red circle

Location of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in red circle

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