Sunday, 26 April 2009

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The Genocide museum or as it was called back in the day S21 was possibly the place I wanted to see the most out of all the places Ollie told me about he had visited on his travels 4 years previous. This was mainly because of the room after room of mug shots of the people who had been through the facility on display here. It sounded unbelievable and I just wanted to see it for myself. While at the time I thought the Killing Fields and the S21 were the same place it wasn't till about 3 weeks before I realised there were actually 2 completely different places.

As usual a bit of history about the place so you can get more of an idea about what I am talking about. S21 used to be the Chao Ponhea Yat High School but was the converted into S21 some years later. It was used by Pol Pot as an interrogation center to find out the names of friends and family of people Pol Pot deemed a threat to his new society so he could find them and get rid of them also. Once people had been tortured and interrogated, if they hadn't died from the interrogation process they would be shipped off to the killing fields where they would eventually be executed.

Like The Killing Fields I had visited the previous day around the entrance was a large amount of homeless and disfigured human beings hanging around the entrance wanting money. So once again after seeing that from the word go you were felling pretty shitty as you entered the place. It was once again only about $3 entry but I can safely say that $3 brought me the most depressing experience of my life so far and I doubt I will experience anything as depressing as this place again unless maybe when I one day visit Auschwitz but I doubt it.

The place is exactly how you would imagine a place were so much misery went on would look like. Paint was flaking and peeling off the walls, doors and window frames, there was barbed wire everywhere and the place seemed to be slow deteriorating with bits of bricks and wood lying around all over the place. I'm not sure if this place was kept at this level of deterioration intentionally to add to the gloom of the place or was just generally not being looked after and was just generally falling apart. Either way it looked exactly as you would imagine it to. Like I said it was an old school before the Khmer Rouge turned it into S21 and it still to this day maintained a few of the original features it had from its days as a school. Such as the monkey bars and other bits of play equipment. It later turned out that they were still there because the Kumer Rouge would use them as a way of torturing the prisoners and then eventually hanging them to death on them.

There are a number of different areas to the genocide museum, the first area you come to are the rooms that were used as the torture and interrogation rooms at the S21. While originally pretty much the whole places would have been made up of these rooms, it is just this one 3 floor block that has been preserved as the interrogating rooms today. Each room was pretty much bare apart from a rusty metal bed frame in it and more often than not a picture on the wall next to it showing a picture of what the bed looked like when S21 was discovered. Every pictured showed the a mutilated or charred body lying on the bed. To be honest I couldn't really work out what had happened to some the bodies in the pictures but it was pretty obvious it wasn't very nice.

Once you leave this area you move on to a floor dedicated to the mugshots of the victims that had come through S21 back in the day. For some reason Pol Pot wanted to thoroughly document everyone that had gone through the camp and would put each prisoner on file including a mugshot. For some reason all the pictures found were not names so it was not possible to work out who had gone through S21. However with some of the photos on display in the museum relatives have sometime recognised family members from the photos and been able to find out what had happened to their missing farther or sister. It was really hard to walk through the few rooms these photos were in as it made the whole things very real. Seeing all the skulls at the Killing Fields didn't really mean to much as you can't put a face to a skull where are when you are confronted with picture after picture of murdered Cambodian it's pretty brutal. Especially when there are endless amounts of very young children also in the photos. I couldn't really work out at what point the people going through S21 would know what was going to happen to them and whether or not the faces in the pictures at that point were the faces of someone that knew they were going to be tortured to death or not. Some seemed to be smiling while others to me looked like they defiantly knew this was the end, either way it was horrible and so hard to take in.

The rest of the rooms were pretty much dedicated to photos, paintings, documents and any other achieves they were able to put on display about the place. The very top floor had the most museum like feel to it with plenty of information about what had happened to this place past, present and future. While the rest of the place I guess just felt more like time capsule that you were able to walk around, preserved as it was back in the day.

We ended the day by visiting the viewing room to watch the 30 minute documentary about the place. After we had put so much effort into making sure we didn't miss it by not coming here the previous day and then finding other things to fill the time so we could see it I ended up falling asleep during the first 10 minutes of the showing making it a complete waste of time as I missed pretty much all of it. I also felt like I was a horrible heartless beast falling asleep to interviews with some of the survivors of the place but I was just sooooo tired for some reason.

After the ridiculous situation of the wedding music being pumped out over the killing fields while I was there the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a completely different story. This time my whole time there was intensified about x50 as there was thunder and lighting and some of the greyest skies I have ever seen. This definitely added to the atmosphere to the place no end and once again I was heading back to my hostel contemplating suicide like I had the day before after the Killing Fields.

All in all the place was unbelievable. The mugshots are the things that have stuck with me the most as it was just so harrowing staring at the faces of some of the victims that had been through this place. The whole place was deeply depressing but I am so pleased I came, I will not be forgetting it anytime soon.

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