Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

It was not a long walk from my hotel at the waterfront to Tuol Sleng; the foul smell from the sewers went with me the whole way, riding the acrid air of Phnom Penh. I recognized the buildings when they appeared; I'd even anticipated the barbed wire, having read about it. It is a school complex such as those that missionaries have built across Asia. This one has four buildings, each with a ground-floor plus two stories, two large quadrangles intended for play and for assembly, and airy classrooms. The villas in front of the school are new, and so are the apartments across the street from the sides of the school—on every floor the homes are level with the classrooms. I saw through the classroom windows clothes hung to dry, children at play, a housewife washing food in the balcony, the numerous sundry things of family, babies. A villa in the corner in front belongs to the America Friends Service Committee. Villas next to it are taken by other NGOs bearing names such as Village Works. The tea shop before the gates of this once-upon-a-time school is for tourists.

When the Khmer Rouge turned the school into a prison they began their interrogations in the surrounding buildings. But there they took to rape so Duch consolidated all operations into the school. He oversaw all the torture that happened there, but he wouldn't allow rape.

Pictures on the walls show the state of the victims at the end of the inquisition. Leaders from the past regime and men and women who had been peers* to Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan or others who were almost as high in the hierarchy were given a whole classroom each, with a bare metal cot to which they were tethered with iron shackles. A small metal ordnance-can lay by the cot and served as toilet. Lesser captives were made to build their own kennels in the classrooms—tiny cells with sloppy concrete, irregular brickwork, skewed walls. Pictures of captives are on display in some classrooms and too many of the pictures are of children and the terror is stark in their black eyes.

Sketches on the walls helped me understand how the ingenious torture devices worked. Seeing them I didn't recoil nor could I imagine the state of those who lost hope there and prayed for life to end. A dullness came over me and I went out and sat on a bench in the playground and watched the many sparrows that played middle of the ground. Young Buddhist monks sat on the next bench; French and American tourists had arrived in buses with guides in browns; Khmer elders stood outside and waited for their young to finish the tour; we were quite a number but in that silence we didn’t appear a crowd. The only sound came from the wings of restless sparrows when they flew close. I sat a long time with a book and the museum-flier and a bottle of water, without a thought, just steeped in a deep sadness.

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