The melodic call of a bird and the gentle breeze on trees is welcoming as I pass through the gates of the barbed-wire engulfed former detention centre S-21. A complete contrast to regular screams and cries for mercy that would have plagued the inner walls of this notorious torture chamber. Fortunately for me, I will once again see the world on the other side of this concrete enclosure unlike the thousands of Cambodians who had the misfortune to be sent here during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge was an extremist communist movement which took power in Cambodia by force between 1975 and 1979. During this era, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodian people were killed including anyone educated or in a professional role - due to the sheer paranoia of leader Pol Pot and his introduction of radical social and agricultural reforms. Former secondary school Tuol Sleng, or Security Prison 21 as it came to be known, was one of many interrogation, torture and execution centres used to fulfil the orders of the extreme left-wing governing elite.
Conditions at the prison were horrifying. After arrival, inmates were photographed and made to recount their life stories which often led to members of their family being subjected to the same fate. Small cells were used to house shackled prisoners who were regularly beaten, forced to eat human faeces, and subjected to various other forms of torture including waterboarding, removal of fingernails and suffocation by plastic bags. Women were regularly raped by prison guards, and attempts at suicide to try and escape these inhumane conditions were kept to a minimum by the introduction of bars on windows and electrified wire on the upper floors of the complex.
Of an estimated 20,000 prisoners who were held at Tuol Sleng, there were only seven known adult survivors. On the day of my visit, incredibly, I got to meet two of these men who are thought to be the last remaining. Both Bou Meng and Chum Mey believe that they were kept alive because they were deemed to have skills useful to their captors - Bou Meng is a skilled artist and Chum Mey was a motor mechanic. Sadly the former is of ill health and both men will have mental scars from their period of incarceration.
It's impossible to fully imagine the suffering of those who had the misfortune to conclude their lives in S-21. Through the stories of survivors such as Bou Meng and Chum Mey, and the evidence of brutality left behind, hopefully such cold-blooded cruelty cannot happen again.