Transitioning from Life to Death

posted by Kristy Densmore

I walked into a single wooden cellblock- Tuol Sleng Prison, Building C.

For a couple of minutes I stood in the center of the cell, facing the same direction I entered. I was nervous to turn around and face the fact I was trapped inside a cell. The window was barely cracked behind the bars, and it wouldn’t budge when I tried to push it open more. Darkness- past, present, and future.

 The brown wooden walls were worn. The planks, arranged vertically, towered above my head and stopped just above the window. The cell, about 6′ by 2′, was uncomfortably cramped for a human being’s living space.

Turning around, I gazed out of the cell into the hall. The cell door, constructed of vertical wood with a rectangular peephole in the top center, hung from rusty hinges. I grabbed hold of the door and pulled it closed, trapping myself within the cell. The creaking of the door sent chills through my body.

Two small chains were hooked to the floor to the left of the door. The length was short; it would have been impossible for a prisoner to stand up or move around if he or she were chained.

I imagined myself being trapped in the cell for long periods of time, not knowing if I would survive the day. Looking down at the ground, I counted the 30 tiles within the cell, half orange and half white (though faded and dirty). If I had been a prisoner, I would have counted those tiles repeatedly. I would have counted the wooden planks. I would have counted everything in attempt to maintain focus and sanity.

It was unnerving to think about the succession of people who had occupied the space where I stood. School children, then prisoners, and then me (a representative for a long line of tourists and journalists). After evacuating the city of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rogue converted a school (symbolic of life and education) into a place of death and imprisonment. I tried to picture one of my previous schools in the United States as a genocidal prison, but it was surreal and impossible to fathom.

Barbed wire fencing covered the front of Building C. I read a sign earlier that read, “the braid of barbed wires prevents the desperate victims from committing suicide.” Many of the prisoners had probably accepted death as their fate. After seeing the torture rooms and cell blocks, I understood the appeal of taking one’s own life instead of dying by the hands of the Khmer Rogue.

Looking through the barbed wire on the breezeway of the second floor, I saw two small girls playing in the courtyard of the prison. Disgust overwhelmed me as I thought about the school and education that had been taken from so many children. More so, I was disgusted by how many children the Khmer Rogue had executed. I wondered if any of the children imprisoned at Tuol Sleng had also gone to school there. An uneasy feeling rose in my stomach as I questioned whether the two girls in the courtyard were playing on bars that had been used as a killing device.

As I walked to the prison’s exit, I realized it didn’t matter if I was closed into a cell, standing on a breezeway, or observing from the center courtyards- everything felt uneasy and eerie. An estimated 17,000 prisoners went through the prison with only 12 survivors- 1 survivor for every 1,417 prisoners.

I felt angry when I left the prison. I couldn’t understand why the Khmer Rogue had killed so many of their people. Looking at the bigger picture, I was angry with mankind in general. The Khmer Rogue conflict isn’t the only genocide that has occurred in the world. It’s a global atrocity on repeat.


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