On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge Regime took over Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) and implemented a new way of life for the people of Cambodia. This new way of life meant death for more than three million Cambodians. The new regime wanted a peasant dominated society untainted by anything that had come before. This meant the killing of any intellectual who held a profesional job, spoke a foreign language, was not 100% Cambodian, worked for the former government/military or even wore glasses. If you weren’t killed you were subject to working 15 to 20 hour days as slaves in the countryside. With working conditions not fit for anyone the people were only given 2 meals a day (if that) of watered down rice and forced to live like savages in disease filled camps. If you managed to survive the three years, eight months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge Regime rule you were one of the lucky ones.
During the rule of the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia they transformed many locations into Killing Fields where people were killed by the hundreds (for no reason at all), but one of the most notorious locations was the Tuol Sleng Primary and High School in Phnom Penh. This location was used for detention, interrogation, inhumane torture and killing of high profile detainees. Everything that happened in these buildings was documented in detail. When the Regime fell photographs, torture tools, forced confessions, shackles and 14 corpses were collected and are now at display there. The methods that were used to gather information from people was extreme and hurts me just thinking about it. I do not want to write it all out, but if you want to know more please read more about it here. It is estimated that over 20,000 people were imprisoned/killed here and lived a life of misery and torture during the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia.
Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is one of the most depressing places I have ever visited. I have tears right now just remembering what I saw and what I learned from this visit. When you walk past the metal gate surrounded by barb-wire it’s like your body knows you are about to witness something so sad and your heart sinks a bit as you see the grey walls of the buildings that were once schools and so full of life. You walk into the first room and ironically it’s bright yellow with white and yellow checkered floor. Yellow makes me smile because I know it’s my mothers favorite color and that was the 1st thing I thought when I saw it, but then my eyes witnessed a metal bed just there in the center with items used to torture it’s victims and all I could think was… why???
As I made my way around all the rooms started blending in with each other because they were all the same. Some had metal beds in them others didn’t. In each room though I spent some time just looking around trying to find clues of what really happened in them. In one of the empty rooms I was able to find blood stained foot prints left on the floor, my heart sank and tears filled my eyes… I stood in the corner and watched people just walk in and out; they didn’t even notice the foot prints left on the floor. A million things crossed my mind as I wondered who did these belong too, why did they have to go through this?
One of the rooms had an actual desk and chair behind the bed and for some reason it’s the room that is most engraved in my mind. All the rooms bothered me, but this one the most. I stared at the desk for a long time and the only thing I could think of was that some sick basterd sat there watching another human being die. Even today as I look at this photo my mind can’t grasp how any human can sit there and watch another lay there tortured dying.
Many times as I walked out of a room I just needed to lean over the edge of the corridor to get some air and let my thoughts flow unconfined by the yellow walls that confined the thoughts of the many victims. I stood there just gazing out with a daze in a state of confusion and trying to grasp everything I was seeing. Even though the rooms were empty and bare they still told me more than I could ever imagine. In each room was a story of thousands of victims.
As I neared the end of the museum I lost all control of my emotions when I walked into a room filled with all the photos taken of the detainees. It was row after row of head shots…. now a face was placed to all the victims I had learned about. Now a face was placed for everyone I had only imagined before. I walked row after row examining all the faces. Some were children, others were adults, men and women alike photo after photo. Some had a face of desperation others showed no emotion… I wondered what my head shot would look like if I knew I was heading to the end of my life? I was in tears as I walked around with my hand over my mouth… I just couldn’t believe it. After a while walking around I rushed through the rest of the museum because I couldn’t handle it anymore.
I sat outside on a bench for a while trying to processes everything I had just seen and learned about, but couldn’t. My mind kept thinking “what if the walls at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum could speak?”. I know so many details were documented at this prison, but the one thing no one could have documented were the thoughts of the prisoners or what happened in these rooms when no one was watching. If the walls of the Museum could speak what would they tell us? I know it’s a quote we often say when we want to know more about something “oh if the walls could talk” and I know I’ve thought it on many occasions, but for some reason it’s these walls I’d love to hear from most of all. The walls of these rooms used as prison cells must have heard so many gut wrenching tears, pleas, prayers and who knows what else from thousands of innocent people. What’s sad is this isn’t even the worst of what the Khmer Rouge Regime did. I also visited the Killing Fields Museum and will be sharing photos from that next week.
As I sit here writing this I still want to know many things. I still want to know why? I still want to know how the world let this happened? I still want to know why I feel this atrocity is only discussed among backpackers? I still want to know how human beings can even do this to one another? I can go on and on with my questions, but honestly I just look at these photos in confusion and feel like these are some of the most powerful photos I have taken. When I see them my heart breaks, because my mind can’t grasp that thousands of people died in each of these rooms and none of them were able to have a decent final good bye.