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…