There are two sites in Cambodia which every visitor should experience. Without them it’s not possible even to begin to imagine the evil of the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime that eviscerated the nation between 1975 and 1979.
The first shock at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital, Phnom Penh, is that the buildings are a standard 1960s high school, four three-storey blocks of classrooms with open corridors and concrete staircases.
This was the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, converted in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge into the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21), in which as many as twenty thousand people were incarcerated and tortured before being transported to the “Killing Fields”, the Choeung Ek extermination centre.
Toul Sleng was one of perhaps 150 such sites across Cambodia.
When the Khmer Rouge fled in 1979 they left in place the last fourteen people to be tortured to death in the centre. The lowest estimate of the victims is seventeen thousand, and there were twelve known survivors, two of whom are still living.
The site is presented largely as found, with the graves of the fourteen final victims set in a dignified enclosure. The classrooms remain, as they once were, classrooms, some still with blackboards.
Some contain the rusty iron beds that were the instruments of interrogation, with photographs on the wall of each room as found.
In one block the classrooms were partitioned into tiny cells, hardly big enough to lie down in, built of clumsy brick on the ground floor and timber on the first; on the top floor prisoners were simply stacked, side by side, head to toe, in chains.
Other rooms are filled with displays of the mugshots which were routinely taken of terrified victims on arrival, male and female, all ages but many of them hardly more than schoolkids, [http://chgs.umn.edu/museum/exhibitions/cambodian/s21.html] together with other gruesome images of the centre in operation.
Alongside the Choeung Ek Memorial [http://www.lonelyplanet.com/cambodia/phnom-penh/sights/museums-galleries/killing-fields-choeung-ek], which I didn’t have the chance to see, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum exists to remind future generations of horrors that must not be forgotten, for fear they may be repeated: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g293940-d324063-Reviews-Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum-Phnom_Penh.html.
Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Mountain”: http://www.edwebproject.org/sideshow/khmeryears/s21.html.