Stepping Into Cambodia's Nightmare

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana, "The Life of Reason" (1905)
A view from the inside of Cambodia's Security Prison S-21, where 17,000-20,000 people were held and brutally tortured before being murdered at the Killing Fields.  The S-21 Prison is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, documenting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979).

A view from the inside of Cambodia's Security Prison S-21, where 17,000-20,000 people were held and brutally tortured before being murdered at the Killing Fields.  The S-21 Prison is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, documenting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979).

If you've ever watched Schindler's List, you know the sensation.  Amazing movie, right?  Incredibly well done.  There is a sense of duty around watching it.  Because we should not forget the atrocities of the past.  We must never forget.  To learn from history, we need to know it and understand it.  We need to learn how the events of our past impacted real people.  We need to see faces and experience some of the suffering, even if our suffering only occurs vicariously.  I'm glad I saw Schindler's List.  But I needed to be in the right frame of mind to watch it.  And having seen the film once, I very seriously doubt that I will ever watch it again.

Those familiar sensations have resurfaced for us around one of the most famous and tragic places in all of Cambodia -- the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  This facility was an ordinary high school before 1975.  But when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh in April of that year, the school was converted into the notorious Security Prison 21 ("S-21") and was thereafter used as a place of brutal torture, horrific suffering, and death.  The museum is just a 10-minute walk from our apartment, and it seems to be on every "must see/must do" list that we have found.  Despite the historical and cultural significance of this place, it has been difficult to muster up the will to go and learn the stories of the people who suffered and died there.

During the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979), approximately two million people were brutally murdered in Cambodia.  To put it in perspective, that was about a fourth of the population of the entire country, and more than 1,400 murders per day for nearly four years.  Virtually every Cambodian family that lived in the 1970s was devastated in one way or another.  The long-lasting trauma of this period on the people of this nation is difficult to overstate.  For those outside of Cambodia, it is nearly impossible to comprehend.

S-21 is the most famous security prison from the Khmer Rouge era, but it is only one of 150 throughout Cambodia. 

S-21 is the most famous security prison from the Khmer Rouge era, but it is only one of 150 throughout Cambodia. 

I finally made my way to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum this past Wednesday.  Our office was closed for International Women's Day, but the kids were still in school.  (Yeah, they didn't understand that either.)  Thais and I had talked about using this rare day away from work without kids to tour the museum together.  But that was before we knew the reason for the holiday.  Thais wisely foresaw that visiting a genocide museum might not be the best way to feel celebrated on Women's Day, and she chose to postpone her visit for another time.  We found Thais a cup of coffee, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a well-deserved four-dollar pedicure.  She encouraged me to make a solo trip to scout out the museum if I was ready.  I thought I was. 

As I walked through these haunted corridors, I felt the urge to escape, to turn away.  I saw the on-site burial ground.  I saw the names of a staggering number of victims in the memorial garden.  I saw many of their faces, before and after they were tortured.  The commandant of the S-21 prison, Kaing Guek Eav (a/k/a "Duch") kept meticulous records of all activities there, including photographs of victims, "confessions" given by victims, and detailed interrogation and torture manuals.  Much of this evidence survived the liberation of the prison in 1979, despite attempts to destroy it.  A substantial sampling is available for public viewing, along with written translations and audio tours in multiple languages.  I saw implements of torture.  I walked through dozens of former classrooms carved into tiny, crude cells separated by poorly constructed brick walls.  I touched shackles, chains, and miles of barbed wire, installed to prevent the victims from jumping to end their suffering.  I heard actual testimony (with English translation) from trials at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the ECCC, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal).  I saw racks filled with human skulls.  The museum is, unfortunately, comprehensive and very well done. 

As I left the exhibit halls, I was overwhelmed with grief -- for the victims and for all that this country has endured.  Tears were right on the surface, and they would have flowed freely had I been in a private place.  I shuddered at the depravity of it all. 

I was desperate for some hope.  I found a small dose of it on my way out of the facility. 

Bou Meng, survivor of genocide and torture.  In the foreground is a photo showing the seven survivors of the S-21 prison.  Mr. Meng is third from the right. 

Bou Meng, survivor of genocide and torture.  In the foreground is a photo showing the seven survivors of the S-21 prison.  Mr. Meng is third from the right. 

Of the 17,000 people who were held and tortured at S-21, only seven survived.  Of those, only three are still alive.  I had the honor and privilege of meeting one of them -- Mr. Bou Meng.  Mr. Meng was there to sign copies of a book written about his life.  I gladly bought a copy, shook his hand, and spoke with him.  He was warm, welcoming, and gracious.  He insisted that I sit with him for a photo.   He wouldn't take no for an answer.

Hope.

I devoured Mr. Meng's biography.  I learned that the Khmer Rouge murdered his wife at the Killing Fields, and that his children likely died of starvation.  He was tortured with electric wires and bamboo sticks.  He was caged like an animal in a tiny cell, with only a small ammunition can for a toilet.  He lost almost everything and wished desperately for his own death.  But his life was spared because he had a talent for painting.  The Khmer Rouge used him to paint propaganda portraits of Pol Pot and other leaders of the party.  A life saved by art. 

Mr. Meng lived, and he was able to help his nation gain some closure and a dose of justice.  He testified at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in the trial of Mr. Kaing Guek Eav ("Duch"), the commandant for S-21.  Duch was later sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity.  Mr. Meng has helped his country remember and honor its past by using his skills as an artist to depict what so many of his countrymen suffered at S-21.  And he helped me walk away from this place with some hope.

Please continue to pray for Cambodia and its people -- for healing and redeeming love, for justice and peace, and for joy and hope.  Please also pray for Mr. Meng, who continues on his own road to restoration.  Thank you, and God bless you all.

- Doug