The reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia ended 31 years ago. Though they were in power only four years, it is believed that 20% of the population died at their hands or due to illness or starvation. Their rationale for their policies was often hypocritical and fueled by paranoia. “Intellectuals” and anyone with an education were immediately declared enemies of state, yet all of the leadership were French-educated university graduates. Visiting Cambodia it is hard to put this recent history behind. As we crossed the border from Laos into Cambodia, I wondered if the older guards had been Khmer Rouge fighters.
In Phnom Penh, there is a Khmer Rouge prison, now a museum called Tuol Sleng, or S-21. It has become a must-see for tourists, in the way that Dachau is if you visit Munich. As travelers, I believe it is important to bear witness to this, even if it’s difficult. It helps us understand the society and culture a little better. It is also a stark reminder that mass genocide can be committed by any society, not just “evil people.”
S-21 is in the center of Phnom Penh. It’s an old high school that was converted into a prison and torture center. Duch, now being tried by the ICC, was at the helm. 17,000+ people died at S21 and only 12 survived.
Cleaning the unmarked graves on the grounds of S21
One torture device: victims were hung by their feet and their heads dunked into the water filled basins
It is a haunting place because the brutality of the Khmer Rouge is in your face. The ground floor consists of holding cells where prisoners were tortured and killed. The metal beds that victims were shackled to are still there, as well as the instruments of torture.
An individual prison cell
All prisoners were photographed upon their arrival and now many of those photos are on display. In most faces you see fear, but in others remarkable calm. It’s eerie. I wondered about their lives, each of their stories, now just swept into history.
Many photos of prisoners, including children
In Cambodia they are only now beginning to teach the history of the Khmer Rouge and its atrocities to high school students. I wish there were more education about violent regimes that focused less on the personalities on top and more on the conditions that allow the mass murders to occur. I fear that the apathy that we see in our society today is one of these conditions, and it needs to be counteracted quickly.