Faces of Tuol Sleng

Building B of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contained photo displays, most were from the documentation archive that the Khmer Rouge meticulously kept during their reign. The first part of the photo displays showed photos from around the time the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge regime had the goal of converting Cambodia into an agrarian Marxist country. To do so, right after they gained power in Cambodia, they essentially ‘hit the reset button’ on the life in Cambodia to start a new one. The start of the Khmer Rouge regime was called ‘Year Zero’; all culture and traditions in Cambodia as they knew it were destroyed or discarded, so a new one could be started. Monetary system was abolished. Most Cambodians were forced to relocate to the rural areas to work in the rice fields that were to become the base of the new Cambodian culture.

The Khmer Rouge regime recruited young Cambodians, mostly uneducated, to be part of their army to enforce their ideology. These recruits were essentially brainwashed and they became the feared army and prison guards in places like Tuol Sleng. The photo display included rows of mug shots of these Khmer Rouge cadres. From looking at the photos, you could tell that they were all very young, and given that they were mostly uneducated, they were possibly easy to influence.

To avoid any opposition, the Khmer Rouge regime arrested and executed those who they viewed as potentially dangerous, such as any educated people or community leaders that didn’t agree with the Khmer Rouge ideology. These were the people that were brought to prisons like Tuol Sleng (there were 196 of them all throughout Cambodia). When they arrived at the prison, they were forced to write an autobiographical account of their lives from their childhood to the time they were arrested. They were also forced to give the names of any relatives or friends, which subsequently were arrested as well.

The second part of the photo displays moved on to show the photos of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng. Each person was photographed at the time of their arrival, and each had a number pinned to their shirts. From the expressions on the faces, you could see the fear and hopeless feeling that these prisoners had.

The last part of the photo displays was very difficult to see as they showed some of the prisoners after they were being interrogated and tortured. The Khmer Rouge photo documenter took these photos as if they were used to show to their superior that they had done their job in the interrogation process. There were some photos that were so graphic that would make most visitors very disturbed leaving the place.

The photo below was one of the many Tuol Sleng prisoners that I saw lining up the walls of the Building B. This particular one captured my attention as it showed a young girl that’s clearly not a prisoner that was arrested because of what she knew, but very likely because she was associated to someone whom the Khmer Rouge considered as potentially a threat to their regime (e.g., someone educated/intellectual, or a leader in the community that might oppose the regime). You could see that she was perhaps scared, confused, or afraid of what’s about to happen to her after this photo was taken. Very likely she was one of the victims who ended up buried in one of the mass graves at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh.

Tuol Sleng victim

3 thoughts on “Faces of Tuol Sleng

  1. I too have been here and it was a sad site to see. I took several pictures of the prisoners as well; some were even babies! It was a sad place. Your post inspired me to do a post about it some day.

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