The school that killed 20,000 people / by Marek Charytonowicz

Today I went to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly known as Security Office S-21 that in the true spirit of Khmer Rouge’s ‘democracy’ was designed for interrogation, detention and killing ‘the enemies of the regime’, in reality - the intelligence and regular innocent people who happened to say, sing or behave in a way not in line with official doctrine.

From here, those who survived the 4-6 months interrogation period in tiny 0.8x2 meter cells, were transported to the Killing Fields where they were mercilessly killed, sometimes even without using bullets, as those were too expensive. It’s estimated that over 20,000 people lost their lives.

There’s no point to describe all the gruesome facts. The prison makes an immense impression, partially due to the fact that it used to be a school and the design clearly suggests that. It’s the little details that send the shiver down your spine in disgust - emptiness and the size of the cells, ‘the belongings’ of the detained, being iron shackles and an empty box of ammo used to collect feces, the barbed wire net outside to prevent people from committing suicide by jumping, wooden pole used by students for gymnastics converted into a tool of torture.

There are exhibition panels in many of the cells from which the photographs of the detained and killed stare at you with clear fear and disbelief in their eyes. One of them, a young woman is smiling gently. She must be blissfully unaware of what’s coming.

The number of children’s pictures is overwhelming, and that feeling is deepen by the photographs from the interrogations where victims lay dead in empty rooms. All black and white, blurry but the dark puddles on the floor say it clearly enough.

The experience is important, valuable, heavy and sad. But what hits me more is the enthusiasm with which a local gift and book seller, still within the museum grounds, tries to sell me a book, recommending it’s illustrations and look. There are two ex prisoners (out of seven who survived S-21) sitting behind small wooden tables selling their memories with a young girl to translate and explain. They’re so keen on showing where they were tortured, how young they looked back then. I try to understand what happened to them and why they ended up re-living this over an over again by sitting here and trying to sell their stories to the tourists. Maybe that’s all that’s left for them as everything good or nice was erased by the horror they’ve witnessed and experienced. Maybe they want other people to understand what happened to them and find a little sympathy. It’s not my call to judge so I back off apologizing and not buying their books. With my fancy camera, sweaty from acting like a tourist all morning, I feel stupid and immature confronted with harsh history. But all I can do is to keep that experience.

I walk out of there to face a bunch of tuk tuk drivers trying to take me to - as they say - ‘another tourist attraction’- the Killing Fields...