July 2, 2016

Yesterday we visited the genocide museum at Tuoel Sleng, also known as the S-21 Security Prison, one of over 100 detention and torture centers operated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. In this place, between 17,000 and 20,000 people were tortured, forced into confessions of their crimes against the regime, and executed. This killing center was just one piece of the massive genocide that killed an estimated one and a half to two million people – nearly a quarter of the entire population of Cambodia.

Our visit was a sobering experience and a grim reminder that there is real evil in our world. Only once before I have felt such chilling and overwhelming horror – at the Nazi concentration camp Dachau. It’s hard to understand how atrocities like this can happen. And I don’t want to get into a long history lesson here. But in a nutshell, this was an attempt by the Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot to purify the populace and restore Cambodia to an agrarian society. In a display of communism taken to deadly extremes, Pol Pot wanted to completely erase class differences and remake society from the ground up, returning to “Year Zero.”

The prisoners here were soldiers and officials of the old government, academics, teachers, doctors, engineers and industry leaders. Anyone who had an education, and all members of their families, were destroyed to remove their advantages. Anyone belonging to a religious or minority ethnic group was also targeted, with the goal of complete racial, social and political cleansing.

The prison itself is housed in a repurposed high school – a deliberate act of bastardizing a place meant for learning and growth and turning it into a place of death and destruction. In rooms where promising high schoolers once attended classes, tiny cells were constructed, windows were barred, and crude doorways were punched through the walls between rooms, creating long corridors of cells. Some rooms were left open for mass detentions, with long bars used to shackle prisoners together. And other rooms were used as interrogation spaces, with crude and horrifying torture devices. It all seems so very medieval, and I had to remind myself that this was not ancient history I was learning about, but rather events that happened within my own lifetime.

The Khmer Rouge officials were meticulous at documenting their prisoners – measuring and photographing each before taking down their “confessions.” Many rooms in the museum now display thousands of these pictures. In room after room, row upon row of faces stare out, reminding me that, despite the attempts to dehumanize the victims, these were real people, full of potential and promise, each with a story and a future that was cut short. Some faces wear blank stares, others have piercing, soulful eyes that stared deep into the camera’s lens. There are expressions of fear, sadness, resignation and, in some cases, defiance. Some of the photos depict children, since entire families were arrested detained. Of the thousands and thousands of prisoners who entered Tuoel Sleng, only seven walked out alive.

I was glad we waited a few days before visiting this prison and museum, though I think it made the experience much more difficult. I’ve gotten to know and love some of the Cambodian people now – and I saw reflections of my friends in these nameless faces. As unpleasant as museums like these are, it’s important to remember. To learn. To reflect. To try to understand how things like this can happen in the hopes of preventing them from happening again.