As India and Cambodia signed agreements on tourism during Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s visit to the country, a few kilometres away a staid looking building in an unassuming neighbourhood received its daily stream of tourists.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh was once Security Prison 21 (S-21), the most notorious execution centre of the Khmer Rouge, its ordinary façade hiding the extraordinary excesses of a brutal regime.
It was a high school when the Pol Pot regime took over it after coming to power. As the classrooms changed into cells and the cries of prisoners replaced the cheerful laughter of children, S-21 entered the modern lexicon of horror. Over 12,000 people are said to have entered S-21— the number could be much higher — but only a handful are said to have survived.
Inside the barbed-wired compound, the scene is almost tranquil. A few women sit on the benches talking, another concentrates hard on her sewing. A child plays in the lawns; a young Cambodian girl smiles as she poses against the grim gallows — a frame of wooden poles that the school’s students exercised on until the Khmer Rouge exorcised it of all playfulness, turning it into an instrument of torture on which their victims were strung out and interrogated.
Inside one of the five flaking buildings, a row of classrooms-turned-cells have as their exhibits rusty beds to which the prisoners were chained. In another building, the cells that once housed the living, now hold their photographs. Children, elderly, middle-aged — they are all present on this roll call of the dead.
When the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia in 1979, the S-21 prison staff fled, leaving behind thousands of photographic and other records. Of all the museum exhibits, the prison portraits are perhaps the most disturbing. Faces with eyes emptied out of all hope, some defiant, others resigned.
In its reign of terror from 1975 to 1979, the Pol Pot regime turned the country into a huge detention centre, executing those they considered subversive. Nearly two million Cambodians are said to have been killed during this period.
The museum gets about a few hundred tourists every day.
Sandra Williams, 22, a student of political science from the US, says having read so much of the horrors of the Pol Pot regime, she had to make a stop here.
“It is such a grim experience, but also an important one,” she said.