A small group of tourists on a recent Tuesday shuffled through the
halls of Tuol Sleng, a dreaded prison under the Khmer Rouge that has become the
most famous museum in Cambodia.
Through one old building to
the next, the group moved, and in the eyes of some, tears built, as they
scanned the mug shots of scores of Cambodians who had been photographed just
before their executions. As the tourists passed the
photographs of the dead, the beds where they had lain, and the shackles that
had held them, a few had to flee the building, sobbing.
one foreign woman said. "We all followed the events at that time, through
media and television. And when you see the real place and you are a witness
though the photographs and paintings and the torture instruments of the torture
cell, it's difficult to imagine the horror and tragedy."
Still, she said, "I think it is important that this museum was made."
As many as 100 visitors pass
through here a day, most of them foreigners.
"When you come here you feel like you just want to be silent and try to
imagine," said Valerie de Robillard, a French visitor who come in Cambodia
for the first time. "It is a dimension that is even more terrifying in
A high school called Tuol
Svay Prey until August 1976, Tuol Sleng became the Khmer Rouge's largest prison
facility. In less than two and a half years, the prison held at least 12,000
Cambodians, and as many as 16,000, who were tortured and interrogated under
suspicion of spying or disloyalty to the regime. Nearly all of them were later
executed and dumped into mass graves on the outskirts of town, at a place
called Choeung Ek, touted now by tour guides and taxi drivers as "the
Kaing Kek Iev, the
65-year-old former chief of the prison better known by his revolutionary alias,
Duch, is now set for trial under the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Duch's trial, which will be held by the beginning of 2009, will be the first in 30 years for leaders of the regime, which led one of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century.
The prison he once
ran stands now as an icon of his regime's cruelty and will hold a center place in Duch's trial. The trial will show average Cambodians one of the clearest pictures of a regime that was shrouded in secrecy until the very end.
Tuol Sleng serves as a
storehouse of evidence in that trial, having housed thousands of documents
and photographs that testify to atrocities committed under the ultra-Maoist
regime, under which as many as 2 million Cambodians died.
Only seven survivors of the
prison have been positively identified, and only three of those survive.
Records indicate as many as 177 were released, but these survivors have not
Tuol Sleng is now under
consideration as a Memory of the World site, its documents and photographs, the
walls themselves, and even the Choeung Ek "killing fields" to be
protected by Unesco.
"We need to serve
justice for all victims, whether they died or survived," the director of
the museum, Chhey Sopheara said.
Prisoners were routinely
tortured here, their confessions against the regime extracted under the worst
of circumstances: waterboarding, electric shock, burns,
The Vietnamese forces that
ousted the Khmer Rouge, on Jan. 7, 1979, found the prison and recognized a need
to preserve it. Tuol Sleng ceased being a prison and began its life as a museum
on Aug. 19, 1979, following a trial in absentia of the regime's leaders, Khieu
Samphan, Ieng Sary and Pol Pot. Pol Pot has died. Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary
have joined Duch in tribunal detention.
The Vietnamese left many of
the rooms and cells as they found them. The museum is still inscribed by rusty coils
of barbed wire, and visitors can walk past rows of cells just 1.2 meters wide.
In a closet sit the old instruments of the Khmer Rogue: shovels, sticks, axes.
Photographs of tortured children, handcuffed or chained, are on display on
large wooden tables.
A requisite stop for most
tourists in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, known to the Khmer Rouge by its code name,
S-21, is also visited by Cambodians who suffered from the regime.
"The prisoners were tied
by their feet and hanged," said a man named Kreusnar, 26, whose father,
older sister and uncle died under the Khmer Rouge and who came from Prey Veng
province to visit the museum alone. "The Khmer Rouge prisoners were soaked
in water jars or in basins. They had their nipples cut off. This torture to me