Now You Can Go Where People Are One
December 24, 2006 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Tuol Sleng: 114 photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge at Pol Pot's secret prison, code-named "S-21" in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, the S-21 prison staff fled, leaving behind thousands of written records and photographs.
posted by fandango_matt (26 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. This is incredible. Thanks.
posted by koeselitz at 4:11 PM on December 24, 2006

I remember reading a National Geographic article about that place. It said six American yacht sailors had been captured off the coast and killed there, also.
posted by atchafalaya at 4:26 PM on December 24, 2006

Haunting, thanks.

Apparently the trial of Duch is still ongoing
posted by Abiezer at 4:33 PM on December 24, 2006

six American yacht sailors had been captured off the coast and killed there

Not a good time for a holiday in Cambodia.
posted by stbalbach at 4:33 PM on December 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

When we lived in Cambodia, my wife helped Vann Nath obtain a visa to travel to the U.S. for a series of lectures about his experiences in Tuol Sleng.

Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Pahn made an incredible documentary about the prison, reuniting Vann Nath with some of his prisoners more than 20 years after the end of the war. Vann Nath told the gaurds what it was like to live there, knowing that death could come at any moment. Watching it was among the most visceral film experiences I've ever had.

And there were several American victims as well. It's known as the Mayagez incident.
posted by mattjohn at 4:38 PM on December 24, 2006

Apologies. None of the marines from the Mayagez made it to Tuol Sleng. They were slain on the coast.
posted by mattjohn at 4:43 PM on December 24, 2006

Do I want to know what the device on the back of Kim Son's head does? Not really. I didn't think so. Okay, nevermind.
posted by hal9k at 5:10 PM on December 24, 2006

It hold's his head in the right position for the photo.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:08 PM on December 24, 2006

Ah Tuol Sleng, the longest two hours I've ever spent in a single location. Makes you weep for humanity. By the end, I was so numb that I was subconsciously trying to recite the old Sanskrit prayers that my grandmom taught me some twenty summers back, but those I've more or less forgotten, leading a mostly secular lifestyle all along.

To those who are wondering about non-Khmer victims, yup, this isn't a Cambodian-only thing; victims came from a lot of countries, including the US, Britain, India, Pakistan, Vietnam (?) and so on. In fact, being Indian, that was a parlour game I was playing after a while; having read in the brochure that there were Indian nationals as well interned there, I began to look for Indian faces in those photos displayed there.

In ten minutes, I began to realize my folly. After staring at each of those dry, despirited, nameless mugshots, you realize something profound; in those pictures, you see neither death nor life, but something _in between_. These people were having their humanity robbed; they were being herded into cages, seperated from family, addressed to by some weird code. And they were being _brutally_ tortured; their arms clamped, nails pulled by pliers, and their fingers dipped in acid.

I had to sit down after those ten minutes. It no longer mattered if there were Indians, or Pakistanis, or Americans, in that list. In fact, I felt guilty for reflexively differentiating between victims. It is that vasudaika kutumbam ('expansive family', an inaccurate translation, I'm sure) thing that the ancients talked about; in pain and in sorrow, we're all one with the Cambodian people. Those atrocities there were crimes against all of us, a guilt that none of us can escape easily. I remember walking away from the place thinking Toul Sleng was a nadir that you don't want the human race to re-visit again.

(Apologies for the length; you guys caught me on an emotional tangent this Christmas morning).

mattjohn: I watched the documentary on Vann Nath in Toul Sleng. The strongest impression I got was on how confident, even forgiving?, he seemed, when faced with his captor. His captor, on the other hand, not only seemed scared, perhaps ruffled, but diffident while talking to him.

A key moment, I thought, was when he seemed to forget a critical incident that Vann Nath was narrating, while he remembered the rest in vivid detail. On video, of course, that forgetting seemed a bit too convenient, may be he was trying to bury his own personal demons, but here's what I think: that was the real climax in this particular meta-narrative. Beyond torture, paint and camera, that was when the Artist had ultimately won.
posted by the cydonian at 7:18 PM on December 24, 2006 [11 favorites]

every face contorts to such subtly varying forms of intensity, under the heavy breath of fear. save for the one explaining what for:
posted by sarcasman at 7:18 PM on December 24, 2006

this one
posted by sarcasman at 7:20 PM on December 24, 2006

in 1966 i visited dachau in germany. after that i have made it a point to not visit sites of inhumanity. one was enough. i am fully aware of the depths to which humans can sink.

i lived in PP for a year but never went to TS, but i do remember while passing it one day that it seemed to exude an aura of evil. probably just my imagination.

once a school, then a prison, now a museum. education in many forms.

i saw a photo of a prisoner that had the standard ID number pinned to his chest. the caption explained the significance of this photo, one of thousands like it... he wasn't wearing a shirt!
posted by altman at 7:35 PM on December 24, 2006

Early last year, around the corner from the museum, somebody opened the Killing Fields Restaurant, which served rice gruel and other authentic food from the KR days. When I was there in November '05 it had just closed.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:30 PM on December 24, 2006

I visited this truly sobering place last spring. It's part of Cambodia's "Tourist Terror Trifecta": the Killing Fields, the land mine museum, and this.

Inside they've posted the official regulations from when it was a prison. Prison staff had to enclose the open balconies with barbed wire because too many prisoners were jumping to their deaths to escape the torture.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what waterboarding is really like, they have a handy display, courtesy of the Khmer Rouge.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:51 PM on December 24, 2006

"... in 1966 i visited dachau in germany. after that i have made it a point to not visit sites of inhumanity. one was enough. i am fully aware of the depths to which humans can sink. ..."
posted by altman at 10:35 PM EST on December 24

And I, having also been to Dachau, and Auschwitz, and Masada, and Andersonville, and Verdun, and a hundred other places notable as the site of some great human atrocity, disagree. Each of these sites remains marked, because horror cements itself to a place, eventually, and draws living human imaginations to witness anew. But horror isn't fungible, as you claim; the ovens of Auschwitz smelled still, a little, on damp days in June of 1967, while those at Dachau were sterile, antiseptic, dusted even, in that same summer. At Masada, new IDF troops are honored to take their enlistment pledge in heavy bright sunlight that has bathed the place nearly every day since the Romans finally entered it, after years of inexorable construction of their seige ramp. At Andersonville, in the spring of 1979, the ground was still hard underfoot, compacted, as even Georgia clay can become, if lived on hard enough, by enough feet, and unturned in more than a hundred years.

But every one of these places is different, because as the human soul is ingenious and cunning in finding new depths and particular miseries, so it is in enduring, and sometimes in freshly confronting imprisonment and death in places where the first casualty is intended to be hope. I made something of a point of visiting these places, to be able to speak of them to others who never would, and I hold no illusions that there is a Heaven, because I have seen, freshly from many of its doors, much, but not nearly all, of Hell.

Moreover, I know that when a place has been taken apart and scattered, as the Bastille was, or rebuilt, erasing the face of fire and ruin, as Dresden has been, the place gives up some claim on historical memory. The depradations of Andersonville are remembered by visitors as sweat of their own on hot summer days, whereas the failures of humanity at Camp Douglas in Chicago must be entirely imagined, if they are considered at all. The power to turn earth, literally, to other purpose, is the power to ignore and forget history, and downplay human suffering.

But I also know that some trickle of visitors continuing in every summer is enough at places like Verdun and Hiroshima's Peace Park, that we rise, eventually, as a race, if not entirely for the memory of such places, at least in hope of avoiding the fresh creation of new ones, to speak of abstractions like "human rights" and "crimes against humanity" and so I feel that adding my footsteps to the thin parade of visitors in these places has not been a futile gesture. And I recommend them to all who can go, on the same somber basis.
posted by paulsc at 9:54 PM on December 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

paulsc, that was beautifully written, a disturbing thing when dsecribing such horrors. Thank you.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:04 PM on December 24, 2006

if you need fresh reminders of horror to make your day worth living, then go for it.

i don't
posted by altman at 11:12 PM on December 24, 2006

I visited Dachau in 1994. It didn't have much of an impact on me - it was very, very sanitized. Frankly various war photos I've seen on the internet have had a far greater impact, mostly in a negative sense. It's just too much to have to grapple with. I need to be a certain distance from what we're capable of to carry on as a full human being.
posted by MillMan at 11:43 PM on December 24, 2006

I saw the movie mattjohn is talking about, and it really is incredible: S21: The Killing Machine of the Khmer Rouge.
posted by muckster at 3:43 AM on December 25, 2006

And there were several American victims as well. It's known as the Mayagez incident.

And not forgetting the "Foxy Lady"
posted by mattoxic at 4:23 AM on December 25, 2006

Wow. Just wow.

Those faces will haunt me. How young many of them were...
posted by SisterHavana at 10:48 AM on December 25, 2006

Chiming in on that S21 documentary. When one of the survivors comes to the schoolyard for the first time since the imprisonment and collapses to the ground in grief it is truly heartbreaking. Searing film.
posted by ao4047 at 5:47 PM on December 25, 2006

In the summer of 2004 I visited Babi Yar (100 thousand killed, many Jews), Berdichev (c. 60,000 Jews killed, among others), and Auschwitz. I also scrutinized old maps and pounded the pavement of Lviv, Ukraine, looking for its old Jewish cemetary, until I learned that it had been dynamited (by the Fascists) and replaced with the biggest marketplace in town (by the Communists).

Babi Yar is scarcely a ravine any more; the Soviets let muddy water flood it and fill its bottom with soil. Berdichev is restoring the castle where the ghetto was, and there are a few hundred Jews there again. But Auschwitz ... oh, Auschwitz. I walked its grounds soberly and studiously. I could not fathom the sheer mass and charge of misery that had filled its grounds. It did not seem to have ghosts ... but I could not approach one monument without removing my shoes.

I have no especial proportion of either Jewish or German blood—a single line of Jewish descent, converted from the religion six generations ago (and resident longer than that in America), and overwhelmingly Danish and Swiss origins for my very Nordic appearance. Slight connections to Auschwitz indeed. But sufficient. Both of them have become levers whereby the meaning of that place has pried open my self and poured in, into the gaps between my ribs and the space between my ears and the creases on my palm. I found no spirits haunting that place; but when I walked away, stepped out as they could not, I became one of the ghosts of Auschwitz. It still is transforming me, day by day and month by month; it continues with me. With paulsc, I commend the experience to anyone who is ready to walk and know.
posted by eritain at 12:33 AM on December 26, 2006

A powerful, articulate and interesting comment, the cydonian.
posted by nickyskye at 1:45 PM on December 26, 2006

thank you for this post, fandango_matt, terrible and troubling as it is ... I missed it over the holidays.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:42 PM on December 27, 2006

yes, thank you very much indeed.
posted by infini at 11:57 PM on January 21, 2007

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