Originally the Toul Svay High School, from 1975 to 1979 the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum was the notorious Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21, through whose gates more than thirteen thousand people (up to twenty thousand according to some estimates) passed to their deaths. S-21 was an interrogation centre designed for the educated and elite: here doctors, teachers, military personnel and government officials all passed through Khmer Rouge hands. The regime was indiscriminate in its choice of victims; even babies and children were among those detained, and subsequently slaughtered, to eliminate the possibility of them one day seeking to avenge their parents’ deaths.
Through the gates, still surrounded by high walls and ringed by barbed wire, an eerie silence descends on the complex of three main buildings juxtaposing harshly against the palm and frangipani trees in the former high school playground.
Up to 1500 prisoners were housed here at any one time, either confined in tiny cells or chained to the floor or each other in the former classrooms. The most southern block A (to the left of the ticket booth) comprises three floors of cells that still contain iron bedsteads and the shackles used to chain the prisoners to the beds. Chilling photos in each room depict the unrecognizable corpse of the bed’s final inhabitant.
Walking across the garden past school gym apparatus used by the Khmer Rouge as a grotesque torture device, you come to Block B. On the ground floor there is a display of thousands of black-and-white photographs of the victims, their eyes expressing a variety of emotions, from fear through defiance to emptiness. Each one of them holds a number; the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in documenting their prisoners and sometimes photographed victims following torture, also on display.
The balconies on the upper floors are still enclosed with the wire mesh that prevented the prisoners jumping to a premature death. The partition cells on these floors, of wood or brick, are so small that there is hardly room for someone to lie down. When the Vietnamese army entered the prison in January 1979, they found just seven prisoners alive; the corpses of some prisoners who had died shortly before were discovered in the cells and buried in graves in the courtyard. Although the majority murdered here were Cambodian, foreigners, both Western and Asian, were also interrogated and tortured.
Things get no easier emotionally as you progress into Block C where methods of torture are outlined, some of which are unflinchingly depicted in paintings by the artist Van Nath, one of the survivors. Prominent is a water chamber where prisoners were systematically drowned until they confessed.