This was a former secondary school that was turned into a detention and torture centre during the Khmer Rouge rule. It's the infamous prison where inmates were tortured badly. Out of the 17000 people that went through the prison, only 12 survived.
We went there on the 2nd last day, during our R&R in Phnom Penh. Because I've read about this place in Time/Newsweek, I was actually quite excited to go. 2 of my team members elected not to go because they felt they won't be able to stand it. On the other hand, it was a must see for me.
We went around 4+ in the afternoon, when it was getting a bit dark and windy. It's eerily quiet, with tourists walking silently. The first block of building was were the inmates were tied to the steel beds and tortured. The Khmer Rouge imprisoned anyone they suspected of treason, including their own soilders, children, pregnant women. The first to be killed were all the educated people, where anyone who wore spectacles would immediately be executed.
Prisoners are chained to the steel beds and beaten, whipped or tortured a slow death...there are still blood stains on the floor.
As I walked on and looked, I felt the sense of death becomeing stronger. My team member was saying she felt nauseous, because she could see blood stains on the floor. The pictures of the tortured prisoners were so revolting, you couldn't even recognize the human bodies. It just looked like burned sticks...
Even children were imprisoned and tortured. In the killing fields of Choung Ek, the babies were smashed against tree trunks..or thrown in the air and used as practice targets for gunners.
Then we entered another room where it was rows after rows of pictures of all the inmates. The men, the women, the children...the black and white pictures with multiple pairs of eyes looking forlornly back at me...you wonder, what were their stories?
How much fear did they feel? Just walking there I could already feel the fear of death and doom...what more if I was a prisoner?
Could I have heard the rest of the prisoners screaming in the next room? Or smell rotting corpses? The pain of being seperated from my family? Or the even greater fear for my family, the fear and worry that they would be tortured as well.
The girl in the picture is Debbie. She's reading the framed picture and narrative of a prisoner. Each frame tells the story of a prisoner. As you can see, the classroom is deathly quiet and run down, just like how it was originally.
Next block was a empty room in the 2nd floor..with pictures and a short narrative for every prisoner pictured. I saw the pictures of the prisoners before they were imprisoned, when life was normal. Some girls with the 70s hairstyle, smiling..guys posing with their military uniforms..looking macho and hopeful. Students, medical assistants, farmers, wives, fathers, labourers. Then you read the stories, how some of them joined the Khmer Rouge for ideology, some to provide food for their family, some because they had no choice...and how they were arrested, brought here and just go missing, pressumed dead.
I felt very uneasy..because the whole place is so quiet, the building is really old and fading, and the pictures just make you ask so much questions about the prisoners. I realized from the happy time pictures that they were not much different from me now. They had their dreams, their fashion styles, their hopes for the future. Reading the stories, in the classroom where torture took place and added with sounds of children laughing from outside the museum, the wind blowing, the sky going dark outside.....really gives a dreadful, coming from deep in stomach kind of feeling for me.
Top: individual cell, just large enough for one person to stand. 3 pictures: Instruments of torture
Then it was the torture block. The individual cells were so small, you can't even lie down. I saw the leg chains, and unwisely stepped into one of the cells just to feel how it was like... and oh man, I felt the strong feeling of despair and quickly stepped out! I just can't imagine being a prisoner, chained there!
Most of us didn't even want to read how they used the instruments of torture. You can still see chain holders drilled in the floor and the original instruments used. I didn't even want to touch any of them! One of the ways of torture was to gorge out the eyes and pour salt. I saw a skull driller too..and a chair where they tie you down and electricute prisoners.
Then we walked on, and I really hated this particular block. When I read the description of the building, I really felt, sad, angry, shocked, grief, fear....and just though, ugh, God! how can man do this to their own fellow man? The building was covered with a huge sheet of rusty sharp barbed wire spanning from the 3rd floor to the ground floor. And you know why?
They covered it in barbed wire because they didn't want the prisoners they tortured to commit suicide! Imagine, they won't even let you kill yourself, but want to kill you slowly, painfully, gorging out your eyes, beating you, letting you scream in pain......and won't even permit you to end your misery early.
I mean, if you really think that this prisoner is a traitor to the country, won't that save you trouble and time to kill him if he kills himself? But no, they would not let you do it. They want to have the fun of killing you to intimidate others! It's almost as if the prison guards enjoyed employing different methods to prolong death and practice their "experiements" on humans, their fellow countrymen.
The worst, worst part of the whole museum for me was this particular room.
If you know me, you'd know I'm not really the kind that gets scared that easily. I'm not afraid of spiders or any other creature, nor of heights or dark. Even after having two accidents I don't have a phobia of cars, I'm very gung-ho about visiting new places. I love to try new experiences, I don't balk at a challenge.
BUT! I was really, really afraid to enter this room alone. At first, I just walked in...but when I saw what was in the room..I quickly walked out...and then only waited until Joel came..and told him.."eh, go in with me."
In the room was a huge Buddhist shrine, and 2 cupboards that span from the ceiling to the floor full of skulls and bones. It's not the skulls that scared me but it was the atmosphere of the room. Especially since we were on a mission trip, the "off, something's not right kind of feeling" of that room made me hesitate to go into the room alone. The room was filled with a heavy Buddhist atmosphere...the shrine was a huge bell, 1.5 metres tall, and there were joss-sticks were some tourists had lighted and prayed.
In the Buddhist culture, it's symbolic of praying for the dead. And added with the skulls.....I really didn't feel comfortable, so much so, it's the only place I where didn't take any photographs. I didn't even want to store any pictures of the room in my camera! That was how off and weird I felt about the room.
Look into my eyes. See my baby. What did I do to deserve this?
Even that night before I slept, everytime I closed my eyes..I could see the black and white pictures of the prisoners! I was even a little fearful to be in the dark alone. The stories just kept playing in my mind when I was in the dark.
It served me right for being over-enthusiastic for wanting to go to the museum. You see, since I am normally not affected by horror movies or gross pictures I didn't really prepare myself before I went into the museum. I went in with an attitute of "nothing will scare me or shock me" because hey, I was a medical student who's seen drown corpses etc.
And I learnt my lesson that spiritual atmospheres are real and shouldn't be taken lightly. I told God, "Okay..I should have prayed more and not be so confident of myself." Thankfully the fear and picture flashes went away after that.
But I'm glad I went because it helped me, helped us (my group) understand the people, the land better. There is almost no family in Cambodia that hasn't been affected by the Khmer Rouge. The scars go deep, and I will never be able to comprehend or share even a little of the pain they have been through. The suffering the land has been through and is still going through with the corruption and oppresion is heavy.
Yet, there's hope because of Jesus! Two out of ten of our Cambodian pastors were former Khmer Rouge soilders. Ps Kim and his wife used to plant land mines to blow up tanks. And Ps Rom used to be a store house keeper for guns. We saw the pastors there united in prayer and fervant for God's work. Some pastors run 3 to 4 churches each at different villages, travelling in their motorcyle to preach. We were so encouraged by their love for each other, for their people. When one leader was pouring out his frustrations in one of the pastors meetings, with tears running....some pastors also cried along with him! And when you see them sing in Khmer, singing about Cambodia for Christ...wow, it's just so magical!