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S-21: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, commonly referred to as S-21, sits in the heart of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.  The barren, cold, concrete walls hold within them a stark reminder of the atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime.  From 1975 to 1978, thousands of Cambodians and dozens of internationals were tortured and killed at S-21.

While wandering the halls, one is overcome with a sense of a smallness, all petty concerns of our modern lives become minuscule against the terror faced by those imprisoned in S-21.  You can’t help but feel weakened and humbled in the presence of the dozens of faces, skin taunt over their skeletons, starved and tortured, that hang from walls within S-21.  What they endured, and how they most likely braved and cringed in the face of horror, strikes you in a strange way.

If you’re weighing whether a trip to Tuol Sleng should be a part of your agenda in Phnom Penh, I whole heartedly encourage it.  While there may be an oddity about viewing the calamity of Pol Pot’s regime as a “tourist attraction”, the museum provides an emotional experience like none other to help you better grasp the barbarity of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.  As said best by S-21 documents, “Keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive is the key to build a new strong and just state.  Furthermore, making the crimes of the inhuman[e] regime of [the] Khmer Rouge public plays [a] crucial role in preventing [a] new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on Earth”.

Yes, it’s more than worth a visit. It’s an enriching, educational experience that will open your eyes to the villainous actions of a few, which are seemingly still possible even in “modern” society.  I would, however, advise against bringing children to S-21.  There are numerous graphic photographs displayed throughout the compound, which are most likely not suitable for young kids.  If you do go, there is a video which is offered at 10am and 3pm on the top floor of one of the buildings.  If you are there during these times, it’s worth your while to watch.  It tells the story of a young man and woman who endured the harsh realities living under the Khmer Rouge, and leads you to better understand how families are still emotionally impacted today.

About S21:

Cost:  $2.00 US per person entry fee

If necessary, guides can be picked up at the front gate for $5.00 to $10.00 US

Address:  st. 113, Sangkat Beoung Keng Kang III, Khan Charmkarmorn

Phnom Penh City, Kingdom of Cambodia

Email:  toulslengmuseum@online.com.kh

The former security office 21 was established within the site of a former primary and high school on April 17, 975.  The Pol Pot regime designed S-21 for the detention and interrogation of Cambodians, including Khmer Rouge soldiers, who were suspected of working against the regime.  Shortly after its inception, S-21 became the site of horrific torture and murder.  According to S-21 documents, from 1975 to 1978 approximately 10, 519 people were imprisoned, tortured at S-21 before they were subsequently killed.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

The four buildings of the campus now known as A, B, C and D.  Building A was converted into torture rooms and detaining rooms with windows designed to prevent the sounds of screaming prisoners from making their way into the nearby courtyard.  Buildings B, C and D were divided into small cells using bricks, but some floors were used as mass cells where large rooms housed dozens of prisoners.  The barbed wire covering the front of the buildings you see was designed to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by leaping from the buildings.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

In the courtyard outside of the buildings you’ll find a wooden pole.  Once used for physical education at the school, the Khmer Rouge converted the structure into a torture machine where prisoners were dangled upside until they passed out.  The large containers at the base of the pole were filled with water, and prisoners were dipped into barrels after losing consciousness.

Outside of building A you’ll find a small cemetery where the bodies of 14 victims found on January 7, 1979 are buried.  It’s believed the 14 people, including one woman, were the very last to be tortured and killed before the S-21 staff fled the compound.

While a guide is not required, one may help you better understand the inner workings of S-21.  However, panels located inside nearly every room in each building provide more than enough information to understand the horrific torture and murders carried out at S-21.  For more information or personal accounts, several survivors have set up stands within the S-21 complex where they sell books detailing their time in S-21 under the Khmer Rouge.