Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

It was hard to tell what happened here by looking at this building from the outside.

In 1974 this location was a prestigious secondary school (Chao Ponhea Yat High School),  turning out young people with hopes and dreams for their families.  In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge Regime took over, it became a detention and interrogation center.  Windows were barred.  Brick wall cubicles were erected in classrooms to make cells for detainees.  Exercise bars were turned into torture devices.  Barbed wire fenced in everywhere.  A large sign greeted people with the regulations:

  1. You must answer accordingly to my questions – Don’t turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that.  You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don’t be fool.  You are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrocution you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders.  If there is no order, keep quiet.  When I ask you to do something you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
  9. If you don’t follow all the above rules you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks for electric discharge.

In 1979 when the Vietnamese liberated the city from Pol Pots control, they walked into the compound and found 14 newly killed bodies mutilated from torture and manacled to metal beds.

There were 14 monuments to these anonymous people as we walked into the compound. In cell block A, the rooms were left almost as they were found.  The rooms had blood stains on the floor turned black from time and a metal bed in the middle of the room with manacles on it.  A giant picture in each room of the dead body, manacled to the bed.

In their rush to leave the city, the Khmer Rouge ordered the guards to kill all the prisoners and burn all the records.  They were incomplete in this task.  6,000 pictures were not destroyed.  These pictures were on display in the next few structures.  The black and white photos showed men and women as old as 60 and as young as 10 with a numerical tag around their neck.  I saw at least two women with infants in their arms.

In an effort to rid society of nonbelievers and counter-revolutionaries, Pol Pot took a page out of Stalin’s book.  People were randomly arrested for fictional crimes and told to confess and implicate others.  Once this machine got going, it instilled fear and suspicion and kept people subjugated.

Those who survived the torture were killed.

The next set of buildings contained cubicles made from bricks.  Each classroom was divided into 12 brick cells into which people stayed while awaiting interrogation.

An estimated 20,000 Cambodians passed through this prison.  Seven adults and a handful of children survived.  One of the children has his story here –Click Here.  This was just one of  150-200 detention centers setup throughout the city.  People started referring to this detention center as Toul Sleng, the name of an elementary school next door.  They also called it S21.

The last building shares both survivor stories, instruments and methods of torture.

Kylie asked again and again: “Why are we here?  I don’t want to see this.  This is so sad.”  “You are right, it is sad, but we must never forget.  It is our responsibility to remember and stand up against these actions.  Whenever we hear phrases like ‘cleansing’, ‘purifying’, ‘re-educating’, we need to remember what this can look like.  We need to honor the memory of these people by not letting this happen anymore.”  This site is part of UNESCO Memory of the world.

As Kylie and I entered the last room, there were skulls and bones of people.  Docents were dusting skulls and cleaning the glass cases that went over them with the utmost care.  Below each, a placard described the skull: “Male, 20-25 years old.  Fatal fracture to occipital bone.”

Kylie types her remembrance and condolences at a computer terminal at the end of the exhibit.  Behind her a docent cleans some glass encased skulls.

As we were leaving, Chum Mey and Bou Meng were telling their stories and selling books they had written.  (Chum Mey’s book and Bou Meng’s book).  These are the last two survivors of the prison alive today.  We got a chance to meet them and hear them speak briefly.

Chum Mey, far left with white hair and gray shirt,  describes some of his experiences to a group of tourists: “I don’t fault the guards, they were following orders.”
The seven adult survivors of the S21 detention facility are above.  Only two survivors  are alive today: Chum Mey (far left) and Bou Meng (3rd from the right)  Also(Photo-credit: United States Holocaust Museum.

Two survivors tell their story in Riya Nath’s documentary S21 Khmer Rouge’s Killing Machine by Rithy Panh.  The whole documentary can be found here (Click Here)

The warden of S21, Kang Kech Ieu (Brother Duch), was a former school teacher.  He has remained in prison since 1999 after being convicted for his crimes.  Most of the guards were children themselves between the ages of 15 and 19.  (Source)

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

As our tuk tuk driver drove us to the village of Choeung Ek or Killing Fields, we were mostly quiet.  We turned down the dirt road, rounded a corner, and were at the unassuming entrance to the entrance.  Lonnie, who had recently joined us for a visit, chose not to go in: “Those things make me uncomfortable to see.”

The Killing Fields where truck load after truck loads of Cambodians were taken for extermination between 1975-1979.  The location was secret and hidden from farmers in neighboring fields.

A large single room stupa mausoleum extends 6-7 stories into the sky.  Inside are racks of skulls.  Ages and genders of the skulls are identified.  The bottom rack shows methods of execution (axe, bamboo, wood, hammer, hoe, cleaning rod, metal rod, and bayonet wounds).  The Killing Fields were estimated to have exterminated 300 people a day.

A rectangular stupa containing the remains of hundreds of victims is the first stop when entering the Killing Fields.

The field was small and covered by trees filled with singing myna birds.  Chickens from nearby farms passed through with their chicks.  People walked around quietly, often sitting at the many benches listening to a audio guide about various stories.  Signs and exhibits are the only indication of the horrors that occurred here in the late 1970s.

We walked along a boardwalk over excavation sites.  Several of the mass graves were excavated by archaeologists and forensic doctors for investigations; however many of the sites remain undisturbed (Source) .

Each depression represents a mass grave with 50-400 souls.  Some graves have buildings with information about the people who lay in the graves.  However most looked like dips in the field.

One site was a mass grave of women and children.  A tree stood next to this site decorated with bracelets.  Alyssa, moved by the experience, took her bracelet (given to her for good luck by a monk before she left on the trip), and added it to the collection on the tree.  Kylie, who left her bracelets behind, added her hair tie.

Young children were beaten to death against this tree or at its foot.  For years the base was stained with blood.

Thousands lie in mass graves at this site.  According to Wikipedia there were 20,000 of these sites across Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign.  More than 2 million Cambodians were killed by Pol Pot directly with scores of others dying from starvation and exhaustion.  More than one third of the entire population of Cambodia died during 1975-1979.  Cambodians of Chinese decent, Cham-Muslim decent, and Vietnamese decent bore the brunt of the exterminations.

This was what genocide looked like.  Never forget. Never again.


  1. What a powerful piece of writing and history I never heard of. I can only imagine the impact this is having on how your daughter’s see the world and understand how complicated things are. Reading how they left their bracelet & hair-tie saying it all….


    • Thank you Vickie, It was a tough day. The girls really enjoyed the audio tour of Choeung Ek. There was a mix of narration and story telling that drew them in. The place was peaceful as well. The day provoked a lot of questions from them both about dictators and how people do things to other people in the name of a cause. (I had them watch the Wave about a 1967 Palo Alto classroom experiment). Cheers and thank you for reading! -Dan


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