Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tuol Sleng: Cambodia's Dark Moments

"I really hope people will not deny their own emotions or shut them off because the images might be disturbing.
It very important that viewers not shut down, but instead engage their own emotions."

~James Nachtwey~

Every history has its dark moments.

For a country like Cambodia, a great portion of this painful and miserable history is pinned down to the four-year reign of the notorious Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). They are long gone, what the Cambodians have now are vestiges and painful memories of those dark moments.

While most tourists come to Cambodia mainly to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, some would opt to take a glimpse into its grim past and meet head-on with the horrible episodes of Cambodia's history by visiting its Genocide Museums. We chose to traverse both historical moments.

Being sucked into the moment, I started throwing questions along the way. Is man by nature evil? Is this a moment of the past or is it a recurring phenomenon? Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I tried questioning even the capacity of human's emotion to bear witness to such horrible blunder of the past. It doesn't either help that I was doing this meandering in a foreign country. But one thing I realized, for a minute or so, going to Tuol Sleng Museum made me feel I am the luckiest person alive (or my generation for that matter).

If you are the type of tourist who would simply want to enjoy and bring home nothing but “sweet” memories from Cambodia, visiting this place would probably ruin your whole adventure. It's not a pleasant piece of sightseeing. Emotionally, you will be brutally tortured. It will haunt you for days (at least, that is what happened to me). But if you want to understand Cambodia and its people, then this is one historical visit that you would not want to miss.

Located in the suburbs of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum used to be secondary school. In Khmer, Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees”. With the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot transformed it into a prison called S-21 (Security Office 21), the biggest in the Kampuchea Democratic. The prison was surrounded by double wall of corrugated iron and surmounted by thick barbed wires. But it’s not only a prison. S-21 became a centre for interrogation and torture for its victims. The classrooms were divided into several cells and were pierced with holes for connection. The upper floor was used for mass detention. Bigger rooms were used to brutally torture the victims.

Several thousands of the victims were imprisoned and exterminated with their wives and their children. Only a few of these poor souls who were brought into the prison survived.

Going there, we met an amputee asking for money. It felt awkward going inside. The air was heavier here than in the Killing Fields. I knew then that we were bound for something hefty and unusual. We spotted a woman at the counter who gave us brochures on Tuol Sleng in exchange for our entrance fees. There were a handful of tourists with us, some of them were sucking into the moment, some opted to sit on the available benches after the round, some opted to enjoy a peaceful walk around the vicinity, others treated it at a passing moment.

gate of S21

The gate of Tuol Sleng Museum. This is the first batch of barbed wires you will notice upon entering the facility. As you go along, these barbed wires will become the most common sight in this place.

more visitors coming

Over at the counter, there is this lady who greets the visitors. After paying the entrance fee, she'll be handing out brochures about Tuol Sleng Museum, sort of an introduction of what to expect in this visit. The brochures are in black and white.


In strategic corner of the facility, we spotted this attention note on how to appropriately behave while inside the museum. This is also in respect to the souls of the victims who suffered and died unjustly in this place.

14 graves

This is the grave of the 14 victims located at the front of Building A. The 14 victims whose corpses where found by the Army Forces in this exact place were the last ones killed by the agent of S-21.

lonely hallway

The long and empty corridor located at the 3rd floor of Building A. These former classrooms were transformed into various cells wherein the victims were being detained and brutally tortured to death.

inside the cell

Inside the (larger) cell, it's more creepy. Each cell contains an old bedframe, a painting of the person who was brutally tortured on this bed hanging on the empty wall, and soots on the ceiling that darkens the four corners. Some of the cells still have the rusty shackles and the stained mat used during the torture.

Building B

View of Building B as seen from the 3rd floor of Building A.

viewing the victims' photos

Inside Building B are bust photos of the victims being exhibited in panels covered with glass. These are photos of children, women, peasants, workers, technicians, engineers, doctors, teachers, students, buddhist monks, ministers, Pol Pot's cadres, soldiers of all ranks, members of Cambodian Diplomatic Corps, foreigners, ordinary people, etc. killed during Pol Pot's regime.

victims' photos

This is (perhaps) the most haunting set of photos I've seen: the photos of children.

behind the barbed wires

From this point, I feel like a prisoner myself.

I took several photos of this facility. And reviewing it now, I said to myself, "Was I able to capture the right images? Should I let them see what I saw? Or should I spare them of the details?" At least spare them of the emotional torture. Afterall, whoever said that photography is a mere approximation of reality has been right all along. The photographer chooses for the viewers. In this case, I did not only choose the images to show, I also choose to present it in monochrome.

I am hoping that I could share with you at least a portion of what I felt that day. I could tell you that after coming out from Tuol Sleng Museum I felt like half of "my soul was completely(trapped) in there" but you might think I am over exagerating a bit here. I could tell you that "the feeling was intense" but then those are just words. You could believe me for awhile, but you will never truly understand the feeling. Describing it is the next best thing, but even that would not suffice. I believe I've ran out of words to say.


James Nachtwey has always been my one (and only) favorite photojournalist of all time. I look at the images he produces and say, "Nothing could beat the bravery of this man."


pieterbie said...

Monochrome is the right choice for this.
I've never been to Auschwitch, my wife has, she says you suffer at least 4 days to a week after you have been there.
I worked for this guy of Jewish origin at one point in time, and he cried after he had been to Dachau.
Amazing to try and believe that this regime was in the 70s, I was around then.

Tien said...

Just looking at the first photograh and I'm creeped out. Sometimes, I wonder how one human is actually capable of doing such nasty thing to another fellow human...And they say babies are like a piece of white paper. If that is the truth, where did the ugly smudge came from? sigh

I like the grave in front of Building A. It is very sombre and solemn.

kyels said...

Ate, the topic should be spelled "Tuol Sleng"; you've accidentally swapped the places of the 'o' and 'u'. Just thought I should alert you about it.

You presented the photographs in the right colour. It gave an impact to the audience --- me. While looking at the photos it reminded me of the genocide in Rwanda and how Darfur is suffering right now. I wish man weren't that cruel but this is life and people seek cruelty in exchange for happiness.

Such is life ... Diba?!

kyels said...

Off topic; I do celebrate Chinese New Year. It's very important to my family and I.


haggis basher said...

20 years ago I visited Dachau concentration camp. An experiance similar to yours, it left you emotionaly drained and as we stepped out the gate we felt a sigh of relief but then we met a large group of people who had been detained there, tortured there and lost family there!

We are just a slightly more evolved animal but it dosen't take much to turn the clock back thousands of years!

my gulch said...

this was happening around the same time that the Philippines is experiencing the Martial Law (1972-1981)under the Marcos regime. Whether in Auschwitch or Dachau, this just shows that cases like these happened and that thousands of people died unjustly.

i guess there is "smudge" everywhere and it sticks well. it cannot be undone.

haha. thanks for pointing that out. i am probably the only dyslexic person you'll meet in the blogsphere who have this certain difficulty in spelling certain words and terms (even though there's a software called spellcheck). if you noticed, i (often) mispell words like Phnom Penh, apsara, and now Tuol Sleng (i am sure there's more). so thanks! appreciate it.

"emotionally drained"...that is the exact feeling. and what's more draining is being a sympathetic bystander of what happened thousand years ago. beacuse you know you cannot do anything about it because it has been done, but then the feeling haunts you still.

Ferdz said...

These images are haunting. It actually gave me goose bumps just looking at it and reading your narrative. And those portraits of children tortured... just gives me a heavy feeling.

I've seen some documentaries on Pol Pots reign before and heard about this. And it seems visiting this place demonstrates how cruel man can be.

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