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The Tuol Sleng Torture Centre
Nick Walton
It was not some sick sadistic voyeurism that led me to the Tuol Sleng High School. I had come a long way and I wanted to see what I had heard so much about, and by seeing the terror and tragedy of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, help my generation to avoid history repeating itself. Andy seemed glad to be able to show me some of his countries past.

I was greeted at the gate by beggars who had lost their legs, a sight that still takes a while to get used to. I gave them enough to buy lunch and jogged to catch up with Andy who had started down a neatly trimmed grass path. The school did not look so bad, in fact it looked very 'institutional' with palm trees in what would have once been a playground, and flowering bushes in groves. But upon closer inspection, I could see coils of rusted barbed wire cutting off any access to the upper floors, and before we had a chance to enter the first of three blocks, we passed a series of white tombs. Andy explained to me that these belonged to Khmer Rouge officers who had been killed by their own, during the Rouge's fits of paranoid purge.

According to documents seized after the Khmer Rouge's fall, Tuol Sleng was established in 1976. Up until then, it had been Ponhea Yat High School. Under Pol Pot, the school grounds were used as a torture and detainment centre and were given the title of S-21 (Security Office 21). The complex was designed to interrogate and exterminate anti-Angkar elements (Angkar being the self-proclaimed head committee of the Khmer Rouge).

The victims of the center ranged. In a handout from the gate, I read that those detained and executed included Laotians, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, British, Americans, Canadians, Australians and even New Zealanders! I do remember reports of two Australian sailors who fell victim when captured off Cambodia's southern coast, but not of any kiwi's killed, though no-one really knows what happened inside Cambodia for many decades.

According to the Khmer Rouge, children were innocent and pure, and therefore were used as prison guards at the S-21 prison. For anyone who has seen "The Killing Fields" where children denounce their parents, well? that was real. Inside the school, photos show crowds of black and red clothed children patrolling the cellblocks.

I walked along the veranda decking outside Block A, which had been used for mass detention, where a hundred people would be bound in iron ankle loops, literally on top of each other, for weeks at a time. Outside one of the cellblocks, was a plain white sign. This was the house rules, which included "While getting lashes or electrocution, you must not cry. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there are no orders, keep quiet".

In another block lay a solitary wrought iron bed. Andy explained that this had been where people had been tired down and tortured. He led me to walls of photos in black and white, which spread across one wall. The pictures were of the dead, many with ghastly smiles after death. It seemed that the Khmer Rouge had a sense of humor, instead of a sense of self-control or humanity. I looked into the eyes of some of the people who had been tortured to death, although most prisoners were kept alive and sent on down the dust roads to the killing fields. They were made to look alive but anyone could tell that the eyes were sightless and blank. They were bodies without souls, all naked, lying on military cots or the ground of the very cells I now stood in.

In the last room, there was a huge map of Cambodia, made from skulls of the victims of Tuol Sleng, and a small exhibit of the weapons used to kill or scare the victims. These included spades, hammers, hoes, hand clamps for nail pulling, cloth and buckets for water tortures and one devise with a young women sitting in a chair with a metal bolt screwed into her head, which was then charged with electricity. Andy told me that she was the wife of a Khmer Rouge officer. "They didn't trust no-one" he said.

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Contact Nick Walton: (Nick Walton) 

Nick Walton is a Newzealander who has lived and studied in Aukland New Zealand and Sydney Australia.  Besides being captain of the tennis team and a avid tennis player, Nick has a passion for writing, travel, and public relations.  He started his career by tackling some difficult subjects like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia which we learned about while visiting a high school in Viet Nam.  (More about this writer.)


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