Behind the Wire

A Trip to Tuol Sleng

We set off on our first morning in Phnom Penh with a rough plan of visiting Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, a highschool turned secret prison operated by the Khmer Rouge during their reign. After a delicious and cheap breakfast of fried rice and iced condensed milk with a dash of coffee from a sidewalk eatery, we looked to procuring a tuk-tuk for the ride across town. Phnom Penh is not particularly walkable, there is at all times a certain quantity of dust suspended in the air that you can taste, and there is little cover on the baking sidewalks from the sun's blasting rays. The grid pattern of the city is complicated by a series of larger boulevards with bored looking police on every corner, discouraging daring feats of jaywalkery. When you do walk, you end up feeling pretty ravaged by it. As the tuk-tuk would cost two dollars split between the four of us, it seemed like the obvious choice.

I was quite excited for this new mode of transportation, which was already a commonplace for my fellow travellers. Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm I neglected to remove my hat. As we picked up speed down a busy road, a sudden gust tipped it up off of my head and away onto the asphalt behind us. I looked back in shock as a series of Lexus SUV's trampled its fine shape and tossed it about between lanes. My sister shouted to the driver to stop for a moment. As if somehow knowing exactly what had happened, he pulled a mean u-turn back into the oncoming traffic, roared up the left side of the road, pulled over, and charged off on foot to retrieve it. In less than a minute we were on our way again, my hat secure in a white knuckled grip.

We arrived at Tuol Sleng and paid the driver double for his valiant efforts. S-21, sadly, seems to be one of the main attractions in Phnom Penh, and so there was the usual crowd of hungry tuk-tuk drivers milling about outside, looking for a day's hire and promising to wait for us to emerge again.

Inside the gates the atmosphere was more subdued, and surprisingly quiet given the general hum of the city beyond the walls. We paid our entry and started to explore. Little has been invested in the interpretation of the site, which is something that one notices right away with the absence of any real signage or information. While perhaps we might have learned more from hiring a guide, the script I overheard from eavesdropping was rather wikipedean in depth, it was a smattering of trivia that I either already knew from my own reading or could discern based on what was presented to us.

This paucity of information is partly due to the fact that there is little in the way of complexity about Tuol Sleng. The atrocities were quite straightforward, modern efficiency coupled with medieval technique. When you stand in the doorway of a room furnished with a bare iron bed frame, an ammunition can for a toilet, and a set of crude rebar leg shackles, you do not need much in the way of interpretation. I think there is a point where empathy and appreciation of historical gravity gives way to morbid fascination, a desire to know the minutae, to have it brought to life.

The prison processed thousands, and their intake photographs are displayed on haunting sets of panels that seem to jockey for space in what were once classrooms. It was hard to picture these healthy terrified people, many of them children, being battered to death with a hoe at the edge of a shallow pit, or ending their days a starved and mutilated husk shackled to one of those beds. It is harder still to imagine that each was forced to draft a confession of his or her crimes, indicting family and associates in fantastic narratives of being groomed by the CIA or the KGB. To read fragments of these confessions is particularly chilling, knowing that these are in effect a twisted form of last testament, the total eradication of the voice before the body.

The final stop in the complex is a room with a simple shrine and ossiary with remains of victims of the Khmer Rouge. Skulls with bullet holes and axe grooves are on display, but the constant flicker of flashbulbs from the tourists is a little distracting. I sat for a while in the courtyard under a tree, looking across at the wooden beam frame that was used to hoist inmates with their arms behind their backs; Machiavelli endured a similar ordeal, but was spared by the possibility of innocence. In this place there was only guilt.