A visit to S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison, is a sombre affair. This was the former high school in Phnom Penh where civilians were imprisoned by their Khmer Rouge captors and subjected to horrific forms of torture. It didn’t seem to matter what gender or what age they were. Some were kept there for weeks, others just a few days. When the brutal prison guards had finished with them, the prisoners were taken away to the killing fields of Choeung Ek and slaughtered. It almost defies belief that this happened during my adult life, between 1975 and 1979, and I was completely unaware of it.
The cells are former school rooms. There are iron shackles and instruments of torture on display. Most compelling are the photos of the victims staring back at you. Paintings on the walls depict some of the most horrific forms of torture carried out here.
Although it is a place of unimaginable horror, a visit to Tuol Sleng can help to put everything you will see and do in Cambodia into some sort of context. It will help you understand the depths of loss and devastation and poverty that the people are coming back from.
When the prison was liberated, only seven men remained alive. Two of them are still alive today. They have written books, which they sell in person at Tuol Sleng every day. They seem gentle, kind men – only two willing to sign a copy of their book and pose for a photo and shake your hand. Mr Chum Mey and Mr Bou Meng are survivors.