Phnom Penh and the Toul Sleng Genocide museum

We make three stops on our way from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. The first a comfort stop, the second stop was for lunch, which we later find out was Pol Pot’s home town. The third stop was at a market place where huge steel plates full of deep fried spiced tarantulas, crickets, cockroaches and various insects are being sold. People are tucking into it in the nearby sheltered restaurant.

Next stop is Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. The biggest city in Cambodia, and the busiest. We see the first high rise building since arriving in the country. A quick freshening up and we are taken to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cambodia was a thriving economy and going through a golden period when Prince Sihanouk was ousted by Marshal Lon Nol in 1970, a politician who had previously served as the Prime minister. After deposing Sihanouk, he became the self proclaimed president of the Khmer Republic. The Khmer Republic was backed by the United States. Civil unrest broke out. The Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot became allies with Prince Sihanouk and the North Vietnam’s peoples army. Following five years of civil war they defeated the Khmer republic government on 17 April 1975. Pol Pot is Solath Sar’s nickname. Short for potential politician. A Cambodian who spent time in France and joined a communist party there and later returned to Cambodia and joined a communist movement in Cambodia. He rose up the ranks to become the leader of the Khmer Rouge, their communist party, in 1963.

Within three days of the fall of Phnom Penh, the city resembled a ghost town. People were forced to evacuate. Businesses, shops, schools, places of worship were all closed down. They were sent to the rural areas and made to cultivate rice. With set quotas to fulfil, they had to toil away for long hours everyday.

People who worked for the government army, intellectuals and whoever they considered as traitors were rounded up and taken to interrogation or re-education centres. Schools were converted into prison centres for interrogation and torture. They were tortured till they confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. There were many such detention centres. Those who didn’t die in these centres were taken to the killing fields and executed.

This continued till the Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer regime in 1979. Exactly 3 years 8 months and 20 days after the ill fated day. Dates and periods which are etched in the memories of every Cambodian alive. During this period approximately 1.7 million people were killed, 1 million starved to death and 2 million were displaced. Both our guides in Cambodia lost their siblings during this period. After the fall of the Khmer regime, the leaders and their men retracted to the forest and the warring continued across the borders. Land mines were planted causing the loss of many more lives and civil unrest finally only ended in 1999, a year after Pol Pot died. Buthy who was born towards the latter half of the seventies said that he had to dodge bullets and landmines on his daily walk to school.

The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum is a high school in the city which was converted into prison S-21. There are four buildings in the compound. On the ground level of building A, each classroom was used for one prisoner each. These rooms were for the higher ranking officials and those in important positions who were now classed as traitors. The bed, teacher’s desk which was converted into an interrogation table on which the officers took notes on a typewriter, shackles and toilet box are all still here. When the place was deserted after the fall of the regime, photos were taken. The first room we went in, the prisoner was found hacked to death and lying on the floor by the bed. The grim picture of this now hangs on the wall.

The school looks exactly like the school I studied in Kerala with concreted plain white washed walls, although these ones are multi-storied, whereas mine only had a single storey during my school days. In the next buildings, the rooms have been cordoned off with hastily assembled together brick walls to house many more inmates. In some rooms, there are no partitions, just iron shackles to which each person was chained together as they slept on the floor.

Photos of the inmates were taken, when they arrived for the records. About 17,000 men, women and children went through these doors. All except 7 adults and five children survived, off which one child died on the day they were liberated. The photos are displayed on the boards. Young faces. Amongst them some foreigners. A British man who sailed into Cambodian-waters by mistake and also Indians. None of the foreigners escaped this place. Barbed wiring covered the windows and terraces to prevent anyone escaping or committing suicide.

Only two of the survivors are now alive. Both of them were there with books they had written about their time in Tuol Sleng. Buo Meng is 73 and is alive because he could paint and his portrait of the leader impressed him so much that his life was spared. He was separated from his wife when they were taken to the centre and he never saw her again. His two children starved to death in another centre. When people were incarcerated, the whole family were rounded up and taken as prisoners. Chum Mey Is older and in his late eighties but looks younger. He survived because the typewriter malfunctioned when he was being interrogated and he helped fix it. He then became a valuable asset to his captors mending broken machinery.

A grim day and tomorrow we are visiting an even grimmer place. You cannot come to Cambodia and not visit the killing fields. There are 343 such fields but we are going to the most well known one which is about 15 kilometres from the city and to where prisoners from prison S-21 were taken to be executed.

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