Man seated in front of poster of himself
Cambodia,  Dark tourism,  Just One Person,  People,  War

Meeting a survivor of S-21, Tuol Sleng

When the Khmer Rouge prison Tuol Sleng, in Phnom Penh, was liberated by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979, the guards killed all but a handful of prisoners to try to prevent them telling of the horrors perpetrated there.

Chum Mey, pictured above, is just one of thousands who were imprisoned here. He is also just one of a very few to have survived the experience – to have lived to tell that story. I want to now tell you his, and theirs.

Visiting Tuol Sleng isn’t for the faint hearted. I started this day thinking that it might feel inappropriate to take photos here (and at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which we also visited). But then I found myself thinking the opposite – that it was important not only to take but to share them. I understand however if you would prefer not to see them, or read about the atrocities; in which case you are welcome to stop reading this post at this point.

Chum Mey’s story

Man seated in front of poster of himself
Chum Mey, survivor of Tuol Sleng

Chum Mey was a mechanic before his imprisonment here. He survived his ordeal by proving useful to the Khmer Rouge, helping to repair the typewriters used to note details of their interrogations. He had the sense to carry out his repairs very slowly in order to prolong his life.

After many years in which he felt unable to revisit the prison, he now comes regularly; as does another survivor, an artist whose skills were used to create accurate paintings of Pol Pot and the high-ranking officers from photographs . They tell their stories to visitors either in person or through the books that each has been assisted to write.

We bought Chum Mey’s book and he was pleased to be asked to pose for a photo which we were urged to share, along with his story.

But first, some background history for those who, like me before our visit, aren’t aware of all the details of the horrors of this darkest of periods in Cambodia.

Some history

The Khmer Rouge started as a military organisation, acting as the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, the name the party used for Cambodia. Operating primarily in remote jungle and mountain areas in the northeast of the country, near its border with Vietnam during the war there, the Khmer Rouge didn’t initially have much support in the cities. But when they joined forces with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had been deposed as leader of the country in a military coup, their support began to grow. People initially saw them as potential liberators from the hated right-wing military regime; and many joined to fight with them in the civil war that ensued.

After five years of fighting, the Khmer Rouge coalition had gained control of increasing amounts of territory and held the advantage. In 1975, their fighters invaded Phnom Penh and took over the capital, thus bringing the civil war to an end.

Under Khmer Rouge rule

The Khmer Rouge now ruled the country. But instead of reinstating Norodom Sihanouk they handed power to their own leader, Pol Pot, while Prince Norodom was forced to live in exile. Pol Pot had studied in Paris where he had been strongly influenced by the French Communist Party. And he greatly admired the rural tribes he had encountered during the civil war, who were self-sufficient and lived on the goods they produced through subsistence farming. He saw them as communes in that they worked together, shared in the spoils of their labour and were untainted by what he saw as the evils of money, wealth and religion.

Pol Pot declared 1975 to be ‘Year Zero’ for the new nation of Kampuchea and isolated the country from the global community. He tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages and create an agrarian utopia, forcing millions of people from the cities to resettle on communal farms in the countryside. He also outlawed the ownership of private property and the practice of religion. But the workers on these farm collectives began suffering from the effects of overwork and lack of food. Thousands died from disease, starvation, over-work or abuse from the ruthless Khmer Rouge guards overseeing the camps.

The regime also executed thousands of people it considered to be enemies of the state. These included intellectuals and those who might create a revolutionary movement. It is said that some were executed for merely appearing to be intellectuals, e.g. by wearing glasses or being able to speak a foreign language.

During this time, hundreds of thousands of educated, middle-class Cambodians were tortured and executed in special centres established in the cities. The most infamous of these was Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. In total an estimated 1.7 to 2.2 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s time in power.

The end of the regime

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations. It was only in the years that followed, as Cambodia began the process of reopening to the international community, that the full horrors of the regime became apparent.

It may seem weird that today they are the focus of some tourist activity. But if you want to understand present day Cambodia you have to know something of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. We were very glad that we had chosen to visit Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, and to have the opportunity to engage more deeply with the horrors that our hosts had lived through. It also felt like an important gesture in a way; the Cambodian people clearly want us to see and understand their recent history.

I will talk more about the Killing Fields in another post. Today I want to focus on what Chum Mey lived through – and survived.

Tuol Sleng aka S-21

Drab grey building with trees in front
One of the blocks with the ‘gallows’ bottom left

Tuol Sleng was originally a high school. It was commandeered by the Khmer Rouge in March/April 1976 to serve as a prison and interrogation centre, Security Prison 21 or S-21 for short. Between 1976 to 1979 an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned here; at any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. These prisoners were repeatedly tortured and intimidated into naming family members and associates before being executed; meanwhile those named were in turn arrested, tortured and killed.

At first most of the victims were those regarded as enemies of the regime including soldiers who had fought against them during the civil war. Others were former government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. But later, the party leadership turned on its own ranks and purged thousands of party activists. Their families were brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered, including some of the highest-ranking communist politicians. The official reason given for their arrest was espionage; but it seems likely that these men were seen as a threat by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot – potential leaders of a coup against him.

The prison was liberated by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979 but not before the guards had killed all but a handful of prisoners, to try to prevent them telling of the horrors perpetrated here. Chum Mey was one of that handful who escaped.

Visiting Tuol Sleng

Van, our guide, told us that she didn’t feel able to show us around, and I noticed as we explored that no other guides were doing so either. This is all still too raw for Cambodians. It was clear that she found it very unsettling to visit these places, even while at the same time feeling it was important that visitors are shown them and are taught about the country’s recent past.

Sign with grey building behind
Entrance to the museum

Instead she gave us a detailed explanation before leaving us to look around on our own. She described how the different buildings of this former high school were used by the Khmer Rouge. The cells of one were used for their brutal interrogations and torture, while others were used to hold people imprisoned during their period of questioning and until they were sent to the Killing Fields.

Van told us about some of the worst atrocities. These included hanging people by their ankles from a sort of gallows until they became unconscious, then dunking their heads in the slops from the toilet boxes to revive them – only to be left again to fall unconscious if they couldn’t give an acceptable answer to the questions.

And nobody could. Partly because they didn’t understand what crime they had committed and what was expected of them. And partly because the young, brainwashed interrogators were persuaded that the Khmer Rouge never arrested the wrong people; everyone arrested was guilty of something and was an enemy of the regime, regardless of what they said. The interrogations were simply a means of torturing people ahead of their inevitable death.

Touring the museum

We looked around the four main blocks. Some are left empty apart from the objects found there when the prison was liberated (a metal bed, shackles, toilet box) and a photo of the inhabitant killed and left there by the fleeing Khmer troops. In others there are harrowing photos of the former prisoners, hands tied behind their backs and with a haunted expression; and of their young interrogators, most with blank expressionless stares.

I have in the past visited other buildings where the very stones seem to hold the ghosts of past events – Alcatraz, Ellis Island (before it was done-up as a tourist sight), the Ark in Bukhara … But perhaps none more so than here. The almost-empty cells, the bleak corridors, the strands of barbed wire; all seem haunted by the part they played in the terrors suffered by those who were held and tortured within these walls.

I could understand completely why Chum Mey couldn’t bear to come back here for so long; and also why he had finally taken the brave step of confronting its ghosts, so that he could share his story with us.

I am sharing that story with you, as he wanted us to – the story of one very exceptional person around the world.

I visited Cambodia in 2020, just before COVID-19 shut down the world

21 Comments

  • Marsha

    Sarah, what a beautifully-told torture story. It is one you will never forget. I’m linking this post to my Writer’s Quotes Wednesday post about beauty to show that older faces reflect a different kind of beauty. I was looking for a different picture that I had in my mind, but couldn’t find it, and instead read this important story. Thanks so much for sharing it.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marsha, I’m glad you found and appreciated this earlier post. Definitely Chum Mey is unforgettable once you hear or read his story. Thanks for linking to your Writer’s Quotes Wednesday – do you want me to edit this to put a return link in? If so please let me know when your post is published as for some reason I don’t always get pingback notifications!

  • wanderlustig

    Very interesting post! About the Pol Pot Regime I had read a lot before my trip, i.a. the book “Kinder der Killing Fields” by Erich Follath (English edition ?) but when I was in Cambodia I could not go.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 🙂 I agree it’s important to read and understand something of that regime before visiting Cambodia? Do you mean it wasn’t possible for you to visit, or that you felt you didn’t want to? I would certainly understand if that were so, although I’m glad that I went.

      • wanderlustig

        Oh, going there was no problem. Countless tuk tuk drivers were offering to take you there. I know I should have gone but just did not want to. I was traveling by myself and couldn’t have talked about the visit afterwards.
        But I went to COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane
        / Laos and also to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. I am not always afraid …

  • Easymalc

    A very poignant post indeed Sarah. I remember the time when all this was going on and realised that we never knew a quarter of what was happening.

    Some people may think that visiting somewhere like this is a form of morbid curiosity, but I don’t see it that way, as I know you don’t. We can learn so much from atrocities that have happened in the past to bring about a better future. Churchill once said something like ‘The further back you look, the further forward you can see’. I know I’ve not got that quote right, but you get the gist.

    To see people who were involved in these experiences must have been very humbling – but also very rewarding as well. Terrific post!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for that very thoughtful response Malcolm. I know you share my view that having first-hand experiences like this can only help strengthen our understanding of the past, and that has to be a good thing. It also really helps you appreciate what you have, even in the current challenging times.

  • wetanddustyroads

    I’m afraid I won’t be able to visit these places … my heart aches from just reading your post about Chum Mey and others like him 😢. I cannot imagine how it’s possible to put another human being through something so horrific.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It is hard to believe, isn’t it, that anyone could put fellow humans through this – just as I find the idea of slavery, concentration camps and other forms of oppression so unimaginable.

      I understand fully that some feel unable to visit and respect that, as do the local guides. We were given the choice and could have opted for a much less harrowing outing. But that wouldn’t change the fact that these places existed and this past history shaped present-day Cambodia. I do feel it is important, if visiting the country, to at least have read something of its recent past so you can appreciate not just what its people went through, but also their amazing resilience and positivity about the future.

  • margaret21

    Yes of course. These pieces of our history need to be remembered and shared. But there’s no substitute for being present in such places is there? I knew a fair bit of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s history, but nothing prepares you for the reality, and I think anyone who visits is changed as a result. The guides who work there are ‘trained’ by survivors, and few remain in post more than six months – it’s too harrowing to live with. That the memories you heard about were so raw and recent must have made it so much more moving

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Margaret, you’re absolutely right in what you say. Seeing and/or hearing it for yourself is so much more impactful.

      I haven’t been to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I had the opportunity to go once. It was with a group of Virtual Tourist members when we had a meet in Krakow. I didn’t know them as well as I do now and I was used to being in something of a party atmosphere with them. I thought (wrongly, as I later heard from friends who went) that the group might be not exactly disrespectful but still slightly in that mood and it would be hard to really grasp the enormity of what I would be seeing. As I said, I was probably wrong about that, judging from what friends said on their return, so I do wish now that I had gone. I would do so if it happened today as I know my VT friends so much better.

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    OH MY! What a story! And one that I think needs to be shared! I don’t know if I would ever be able to go back to that prison had I or my family been there…..Chum Mey is looking good now, which is a miracle in itself! I think we need to be wary of our world today……this won’t be the last time this happens I fear! People want POWER over us!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks – I’m glad you agree with me that this needs to be shared. And I don’t know that I would be able to go back to somewhere I’d seen such suffering, but I guess if we haven’t been through anything like this we can’t really say how we would cope or react. I admire him ,and the other survivor we saw there, for doing this. The other guy, the artist, didn’t look so healthy – I think he is older and he was asleep in his little shelter so we didn’t bother him. A third survivor, also an artist, used to do this too but he died. Soon there will be no one left to tell the story at first hand, hence the importance of them sharing it while they can, in person and in their books.

  • SandyL

    The brutal histories of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar etc. is hard to reconcile with the images of people & places we see when we visit present day. Yet these are all recent histories, not even one generation ago. History should teach us lessons. It’s when we forget or deny that they happened, that the atrocities of the past re-occur.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re right Sandy. At the Killing Fields we talked with our guide about her family’s experiences. She is young and wouldn’t have been alive at that time but her parents were. She told us they just don’t want to talk about the horrors they saw, and want to put it behind them, but she thinks it’s important that as a country they don’t forget and they don’t let the world forget. But although all this is so recent, we found the present-day Cambodians to be really positive and friendly. I really liked the country and would love to go back to see more.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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