The last building we visited at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is called Building D. This building had a display of torture devices used at Tuol Sleng and some paintings to illustrate how they were used, done by Vann Nath, one of only seven survivors out of almost 20,000 people who were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. The paintings were done based on his recollection of what he saw and heard during his time at Tuol Sleng — showing various ways prisoners were tortured. This was also very difficult to see. It’s hard to imagine how people could be so cruel and treated others like that.

On the upper floor of Building D, there were two interesting exhibits that covered the impact of Tuol Sleng on people years after the prison was discovered. One exhibit told stories from people who lost their family members to Khmer Rouge atrocities. These stories told about people being betrayed, their families remembering vividly the last time they saw them before the Khmer Rouge took them away, and how they were remembered. Very heart wrenching.

Another exhibit showed the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of some ex-Khmer Rouge cadres who worked at Tuol Sleng and were still alive years later. It’s interesting to read their testimonies. Some said they did their job out of fear of their own lives. Some pointed to the leaders of Khmer Rouge to blame instead of the lower-level cadres since the leaders were the ones setting the direction. There was also an interesting text that mentioned how in genocide situation like what happened in Cambodia, the perpetrators might actually be victims themselves as studies showed that many would show symptoms of psychological problems like depression, recurring nightmares, and trouble concentrating or sleeping, years after.

I think the takeaway from seeing these exhibits is that it’s a very complex situation to move on from such dark times, as every single person was impacted in unique way, and each handles the situation differently.

The photo below was one of the photographs on the display at the museum. It showed people observing a cabinet full of skulls of the victims excavated from the mass graves. You could see the sadness in the face of the lady in the middle — I wonder if she’s remembering anyone close to her who lost their lives in the hands of the Khmer Rouge.


Prison Cells

Building C at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was filled with classrooms that were converted into prison. Makeshift cells, each about 2′ x 6′ in size were created using bricks and metal support on the ground floor, and wooden panels on the second floor. There were chains cemented to the floor used to tie the prisoners. A prisoner had to stay quiet within their cell; if they made any noise, the prison guards would come and beat them up. The exterior of Building C was covered with barbed wire, to prevent any of the prisoners to attempt suicide by jumping from the higher floors.

Looking at these small cells, with the chain on the ground and only small amount of sunlight coming through from the outside, I wondered what a prisoner would be thinking when locked up in there.. Remembering the past when they were free? Fear of the guards outside? What to say when the interrogators asked questions about one’s background? Anxiety in anticipating execution? All of the above? It was very difficult to think how thousands of people went through the horror there.

The photo below was taken at one of those classrooms in Building C. You can see the makeshift prison cells built with cinder blocks.

Makeshift prison cells

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

Interrogation and Torture

The first building we visited in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is the southernmost building called Building A. Right outside the building, the first thing we saw was the courtyard that was turned into a small gravesite. There were 14 tombs there for the victims whose bodies were found in Building A when the prison was discovered.

The former high school was converted by the Khmer Rouge into an interrogation center and prison in 1975, but it was kept a secret to the outside world, and it was not discovered until 1979 when the Vietnamese Army came to liberate the city of Phnom Penh. The classrooms in Building A were converted into interrogation and torture rooms. The rooms were emptied out, and in place there was a metal bed frame with car batteries, and some metal instruments used for torture in each of the room. When the Vietnamese Army first discovered the prison, in the rooms they also found the bodies of the victims. You could see the grisly black and white photo of what the room was like when it was first discovered on the wall of each room. Thankfully the photo prints were old and not crisp, but enough to give the visitors idea of how horrific it was finding out about the atrocities done in this place. I think the image of the interrogation room with its checkered floor tiles, metal frame and torture instruments in the middle of the room, and the black and white photograph on the wall would be one I always remember and it’s the first one that comes to my mind when I hear the name Tuol Sleng mentioned.

Right outside building A, there was a wooden bar that was used for physical education exercise back when this was a school. The Khmer Rouge turned it into another instrument of torture; it was used as a gallows. A person would be tied on a rope and hung upside down on this gallows, and told to confess until he/she lost consciousness from being upside down. Then the person's head would be lowered down into a big jar filled with dirty water and fertilizer so the prisoner would regain consciousness and the interrogation would continue. As I read the description of this torture and interrogation process, I couldn’t help thinking how human creativity could be used for evil. We often celebrate the human ingenuity and creativity to accomplish something using little resources or repurposing an instrument for other use. Here’s an example of doing so for the worst possible reasons.

I took the photo below as I walked through the Building A of Tuol Sleng. It’s interesting that from photography standpoint, these classrooms turned torture chambers with bedframes and torture equipment in the middle of the rooms were nicely lighted with sunlight through their windows, so you could take great photographs of them. I just can't imagine what it’s like to be the Vietnamese photographer who came here, saw the scenes, and took the photographs that were shown on the wall. Often time photographers say that their style is ‘photojournalistic’ as they take the photos that record the moments as they happen. Well, this takes ‘photojournalism’ to a different level…

Interrogation and torture room

Tuol Sleng

The Tuol Sleng / S-21 Prison is an old high school building turned prison right in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia that now serves as a museum to remember the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. In this prison, more than 20,000 people were imprisoned, and only seven prisoners survived the four years of horror at the prison.

We went to Tuol Sleng after finishing our visit to the National Museum of Cambodia. When we arrived at there, my first impression of the place was that it’s somewhat different than what I had thought in my mind. While I knew that Tuol Sleng was located in Phnom Penh, I didn’t realize that the complex was right in the middle of a dense residential area. You could see people’s homes right across the street and surrounding the complex.

The building itself looked old and run down, but eerily it looked somewhat familiar to me. The building was a high school before the Khmer Rouge regime converted it into an interrogation center and prison. As such, the three-story high school buildings with their classrooms looked very similar to my junior high and high school buildings back in Indonesia. I think my school buildings were built around the same era as when the Tuol Sleng buildings were built, so it makes sense that they look kind of similar.

One part that gave a visitor a clue that this was not just an ordinary building was the fence around the complex. The fence was covered with corrugated metal sheets and barbed wires — looking more like prison than high school.

I took the photo below from the third floor of one of Tuol Sleng’s buildings. You can see the courtyard, and the surrounding dense residential neighborhood. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in a neighborhood close to a place where thousands of people were tortured and killed.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum