The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in the capital of Phnom Penh, Cambodia chronicling the Cambodian genocide. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill". Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country, and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were later killed. Tuol Svay Prey High School was originally built as a secondary school in 1960, during the reign of Preah Batnorodom Sihanouk. The Khmer Rouge converted it into a torture and interrogation centre to extract 'confessions' of anti-government sentiment. Many victims were women and children incarcerated along with the 'suspected' father. Documents recovered indicate that over 17,000 persons had been imprisoned there between 1975 and 1978, of whom only seven are known to have survived.
It feels morbid to walk through the classrooms of the school, called Security Prison 21 during the time of the Khmer Rouge and now known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In some rooms there are still blackboards up on the wall; in some there are photos of the prisoners; and in many there are still the instruments of torture. The prison here was for people accused of political crimes but most of the detainees had committed minor or no offences against the Khmer Rouge. Such was Pol Pot’s paranoia, he felt it better to kill an innocent than let a guilty person go free.
In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21); it soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek . S-21 has been turned into the Tuol Sleng Museum, which serves as a testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, they found only seven prisoners alive at S-21. Fourteen others had been tortured to death as Vietnamese forces were closing in on the city. Photographs of their decomposing corpses were found. Their graves are nearby in the courtyard.
Tuol Sleng reopened in 1980 as a historical museum memorializing the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime. It is open to the public and thousands of Cambodians and foreigners have visited it, bizarrely attracted to the testimony of man’s inhumanity to man.
Altogether, a visit to Tuol Sleng is a profoundly depressing experience. There is something about the sheer ordinariness of the place that make it even more horrific; the suburban setting, the plain school buildings, the grassy playing area where several children kick around a ball, ousted beds, instruments of torture and wall after wall of harrowing black-and-white portraits conjure up images of humanity at its worst. Tuol Sleng is not for the squeamish.
Address: St 113, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: From 8AM to 5 PM in week.