George W. Bush and Genocide
Visit to Tuol Sleng: Khmer Rouge Genocide Museum
Nov 4th, 2004: George W. Bush “Wins” His Second Term of Presidency
It was the fourth of November 2004 and we were making our way through the narrow vibrant pathways of the Central Market in Phnom Penh. We were looking for the food court section planning to try out local Khmer breakfast. We stumbled out of the produce section with a couple of staple items — peanuts and longuns (the longuns in Cambodia are small but especially juicy, tasty and cheap) and found ourselves walking down a long row of butchers. Each stall had a different type of meat. Slabs of freshly cut pork ribs hung in one stand. The next displayed huge cow livers and other offals. Plucked chickens dangled above an arrangement of chicken feet across the way.
Arriving at the end of butcher’s row we passed through the central heart of the market from which its branches spoked out. This section was well lit. It gleamed and sparkled with the gold and gems sold at the stalls in that area. We passed into another branch and arrived at the food court.
We were newly arrived in Phnom Penh and had not had a chance to sample Khmer breakfast, so we explored the section to see what sort of fare was being served. It seemed to be mostly a basis of noodle broth soup with several variations. Neither of us particularly wanted soup that morning. Luckily, in the far corner was a fried noodle and rice station. We sat down and had a familiar meal instead of getting too adventurous. I found a drink stand and somehow ordered an ice-coffee that was pure condensed milk and took it back to my noodles in a take-away bag with a straw.
We were just settling down to our food when a young lad approached us selling newspapers. Today was his lucky day. George Bush had just “won” the U.S. presidential election, making it impossible to refuse to buy a paper. There on the front of The Cambodia Daily the long reach of U.S. politics smiled triumphantly out at us in the form of George W. Bush. We glanced over the article and finished off our noodles, wondering what the next four years were going to bring.
We didn’t want to go back to Capitol Guest house where we were staying because we had been overly friendly with the “moto” guys who hung around looking for stray tourists to take to the killing fields, to shoot AK47s and M16s, to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, to see the silver pagoda or to do whatever else tourists did in Phnom Penh. Now we had three guys in hot competition to take us around. It was starting to look as if it would turn into a dog fight with us in the middle. We were beginning to understand why the other tourists rudely refused to speak to any of them.
We had only a vague idea of what we would see in the Tuol Sleng genocide museum where the Khmer Rouge killed more than 17,000 people, including around 2,000 children, some as young as 2 years old. Since we were already mortified with the proposition of having George W. Bush running the US for another four years we thought it would be fitting to visit the site of the terrible, pointless tortures that had occurred in Cambodia. We had a look at our map and decided we could walk there.
We weaved our way out of the market’s labyrinth, into the bright sunlight and headed off in the general direction of Tuol Sleng. Sweat was soon pouring out of our every pore so we hailed a passing siclo (three wheeled bicycle with a passenger chair in the front) and both piled in. The elderly wiry driver worked away at the pedals with amazing dexterity, gracefully maneuvering between cars and motorbikes which approached us from every direction. The slow, rhythmical movements of the peddling gave us a chance for a leisurely view of Phnom Penh city life. Soon we bumped and clattered down a small dirt road and unloaded ourselves at the gate of the prison.
The sun was shining brightly on the cement buildings. Visitors to the museum were strolling along the walkways and sitting on benches in the shade under trees. In one area was a small graveyard of 14 people who were found freshly killed when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in January, 1979. Tuol Sleng had originally been Tuol Svay Prey High School. It was easy to imagine students in uniforms gathered under the trees or walking along the pathways.
There was a strange peacefulness pervading the area. Looking at the buildings and gardens from the outside it was difficult to begin to imagine the horrible pain and sorrow that thousands of people had been put through in this 600 by 400 meter area. S-21 or Security Office 21 was established here in May 1976 as the Khmer Rouge’s premier security institution and the name changed to Tuol Sleng. Tuol Sleng translates into English as “hill” and Sleng “poisonous/guilt” –poisonous hill or a mound on which the guilty must stay.
S-21 security institution had other branches in other areas of Cambodia and was kept top secret by the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng was specifically designed as a place to hold, interrogate and exterminate individuals who were accused of opposing Angkar –people who were traitors to the revolution. But many were executed only because they could read and write and often their families were wiped out as well.
In the first building of the compound were the interrogation offices. These rooms were left as they had been found when the Vietnamese arrived at the prison. Each room had a battered metal bed frame, some brutal looking tools and a large photo on the wall showing a mutilated and bloody body on the bed with pools of blood on the floor below. Stepping into these rooms, the peacefulness of the outside vanished, leaving a feeling of shock and disbelief. Visitors to the museum were silent. Only the click of a camera or an occasional murmured voice could be heard.
After walking through the rooms of that first building we sat on a low bench under a fragrant frangipani tree and looked over the information brochure handed to us when we entered. Near us were some gymnast bars with huge terra-cotta pots underneath. A passing guide was telling his tourists how his father had been subjected to this particular form of torture, in which the victim was repeatedly lowered head first from these bars into a pot of dirty water until nearly dead.
We moved towards the next building, the horror of what had taken place in this compound beginning to sink in. This building had large rooms filled with photographs of the people who had passed through Tuol Sleng. The Khmer Rouge had kept meticulous records and photos of those who had entered the prison. We walked through corridors of their faces, some of them smiling, some looking terrified, some angry, some beautiful, old, young — every face was there. There were thousands of photos of men, women, and children. There were before and after interrogation shots and pictures taken while the victim was being tortured or killed. The prisoners were workers, farmers, engineers, technicians, intellectuals, professors, teachers, students, ministers and diplomats. These people came from all over the country and included nine westerners as well as quite a few Vietnamese. Most prisoners were there only 2 to 4 months before being taken to the killing fields to dig their own graves before being shot. Ministers and diplomats were generally kept for longer periods.
Most of the guards had been children, male and female, aged 10 to 15. These children were selected and trained by the Khmer Rouge, who preferred to choose children because of their lack of developed conscience. As time passed these kids grew more and more paranoid and aggressive. Soon they turned on their trainers accusing them of being traitors to the revolution and torturing them to death. There were signs with long lists of rules and statements to the effect that the prisoners were worthless because they were traitors. For example:
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.
The last room in this building had photographs of graphic and horrible torture procedures and murder, as well as of the mass graves at the killing fields. There was also a picture of the infamous map of Cambodia created out of the skulls of victims. The original is no longer displayed.
In the next building the ground floor was divided into tiny cells 0.8 x 2 meters each, roughly built with bricks and mortar. Rows and rows of them extended down the corridors. Walking into one, I became claustrophobic immediately. The prisoners were shackled constantly and had no blanket or mat to sleep on in this tiny space.
The floors above the individual cells were mass cells, holding from 50 to 100 people. These prisoners were shackled to either side of a long iron bar and made to lie on their backs. At 4:30am all the prisoners had to remove their shorts down to their ankles for inspection by the guards. They were inspected like this 4 times a day. They had to ask permission to do anything, even to change position. The only medical attention anyone got was from the guards and there was no medicine. They were allowed a couple of spoonfuls of watery rice twice a day. Every once in a while the prisoners were rounded up into a room and a hose was sprayed at them briefly through a window to clean them.
The last room we entered had mural scenes painted by Vann Nath who was one of only 7 survivors of Tuol Sleng. Comrade Duch, the man in charge of Tuol Sleng, had kept him alive to paint portraits of Pol Pot. Vann Nath now paints murals of the atrocities he witnessed in the prison. Several of these murals were sitting propped up against a wall and partially covered up. There were other signs of abandoned construction. In one corner was a small message explaining that the museum was no longer receiving any funding from the government. It also mentioned that not one of the people responsible for these atrocities had been brought to trial.
Leaving the prison we were feeling rather numb and decided to go watch the sunset on Boeung Kak Lake. After another leisurely siclo ride we found ourselves wandering through the narrow unpaved alleyways with comfortable looking cafes and found a guest house with a large veranda stretching out over the lake. Hammocks were strung around poles and tourists were lounging all around. We ordered a couple of fresh and tasty fruit shakes and relaxed into our chairs as the sunset arranged a vibrant display of clouds and colors.
We were just thinking of leaving when a young troupe of orphans began a performance of traditional Khmer dance and music. The performance began with a tune from the percussionists. The young lad on the roneat (a hanging wooden xylophone) was quite talented but a little proud of his talent, the song went on and on until the leader of the troupe suddenly showed up and ended it.
They performed the love story of the Mermaid and Hanuman, the monkey god, and then a coconut dance where the boys and girls paired up and clicked and clattered their coconuts shells together. For the last dance they brought out two long bamboo poles and two shorter ones and squatting down began to clap the two longer bamboo poles together while a couple of the dancers began to jump and hop a dance between the snapping bamboo clappers. The speed increased as the poles slapped together more and more forcefully. At last the dancers broke off and went out to the watching tourists and grabbed a couple to join their dance.
When the performance ended a young lady explained that they were orphans and needed whatever donations we could give them for their costumes and instruments. All of us were impressed by the young troupe’s initiative and pride in their traditional dances and were happy to give a donation.
Heading back to our guest-house after the performance we felt that we had just experienced a day with a powerful glimpse into the spirit of these beautiful and passionate people. The young and determined troupe of traditional dancers impressed us all the more when we recalled that not that long ago people were being killed for simply being able to read. Despite the unresolved nightmare of Tuol Sleng hanging in their recent past many of the Cambodians we met had a proud, strong spirit and a quiet determination.
After seeing how the small light of hope is never completely crushed, we thought of the coming four years with a president at the helm of a world power who had such disdain for the people who he was supposedly serving. With our conflicting emotions of hope and dread we slipped back into our guest house and finished the depressing day off by watching Clockwork Orange, just to make sure we were sufficiently traumatized.