Through his Eyes: Tuol Sleng Prison

posted by Lindsey Isaf

Tuol Sleng, the S-21 prison, was previously a place of education before its horrendous transformation thirty years ago. In the streets of Phnom Penh, the only evidence that you have arrived at the infamous four-walled structure is the mundane plaque, no bigger than a notebook, at the entrance that reads “Tuol Sleng.” Through the entrance was an intensely eerie familiar layout of a schoolyard, but the realities of its use were drastically different.

The grounds no longer housed swing sets, school desks or chalkboards. Instead, barbed wire drooped over time-withered buildings. Only one small door cutout, used for dragging prisoners to and from interrogation, broke the sheet of daunting twisted wire. Swing sets were turned into gruesome means for interrogation, and the 360-degree survey of the grounds showed no remnants of an innocent schoolyard. The leftovers of the Khmer Rouge prison were individual rooms still possessing rusting torture equipment and rooms lined with detaining cells that strike fear with a simple glance.

The haunting appearance of its entirety and the willingness of Chum Mey, one of three still living survivors of Tuol Sleng, to be our guide was baffling. At first glance, he resembles any older Cambodian man seen on the street. His skin was wrinkled and darkened by age and the beating sun. His hands reminded me of crocodile skin: tough and weathered. His voice did not waiver and his smile epitomized wisdom and understanding. All these characteristics revealed age, but barely betrayed the hardships of being tortured physically and mentally for nearly two and a half months. The truth was hidden. That is until our eyes met.

His eyes resembled something entirely different. Through them I could see his life, his burdens, his highs and lows. The white of his eyes, like a crystal ball, had turned permanently glossy with an indescribable blue tint that invited you to ask questions. I could see the tears that have fallen for years. I could see the pain he felt and witnessed. I could see history.

Although challenging, Chum Mey willingly re-entered Tuol Sleng to teach tourists about the atrocities. Following him towards Building A, where his own and most other interrogations and torturing occurred, I stared in amazement as he reenacted being shackled. Each room of Building A was equipped with various torturing equipment, dulled and rusted from time and use, precariously lying on metal bed frames. Barbaric torture methods of breaking bones, ripping toenails, and electric shocks were all performed in these bare concrete rooms. Discolored tiles under my feet had me shuffling with unease. Simply being present was enough to make any stomach turn with discomfort.

The remaining buildings were used to detain those inmates that were not being tortured for false accusations of CIA or KGB affiliations, or other forms of disloyalty. With amazing ease, Chum walked into Building B and straight to cell 022, where he lived for 72 days. Several identical cells lined each wall. The dried mortar dripped over sandwiched bricks and the insufficient sunlight seeped only through the aged and cracked shudders. The spine-chillingly crude cells seemed to capture a fear that still lingered. The saddening fates of those prisoners were made all too real as Chum slowly lowered his eighty year old body into the shackled position he sat in for hours at a time, decades before.

After taking us through his life and experience while in Tuol Sleng, he posed for a picture in the courtyard. His last words pleaded for each of us to tell his story. To leave the story untold would not be an option. With Chum May’s request and a personal promise, I left Tuol Sleng with a pledge to share what my eyes saw and what the portals of his eyes revealed to me.

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