Hallway at Tuol Sleng

I didn’t know what to expect in Cambodia- I knew the nightmarish image I’d created as a child hearing about the Khmer Rouge on the CBC wasn’t right: a whole country couldn’t be a red field littered with dead bodies, peppered with temples crumbling under the gunfire of soldiers. And it isn’t.

But it’s impossible to ignore its recent and bloody history. You walk down the riverside of Phnom Penh, looking for some amok, and tuk-tuk drivers, one after the other after the other, will offer to take you to various attractions. “Genocide museum?” “Lady, you go to the killing fields?” There is a full-day tour option of visiting the genocide museum, the killing fields, and then the shooting range. Offered without irony.

Bracing ourselves, we entered Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

You feel it right away- the stillness, the heaviness, the quiet, even though it’s smack dab in the middle of busy Phnom Penh.

A former school, the buildings were transformed into a torture prison (or “office S.21”) between 1975 and 1979.  A place for detention, interrogation, torture and killing under the criminal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

It is impossible to understand the atrocities committed, the scale… They wanted to create a purely agrarian society and a country with no past. It is estimated that 2 million people were killed- almost a third of the population of Cambodia. 20,000 of them children.

I hope I’ll never understand.

Phys ed equipment in the yard was used as torture instruments. Classrooms turned into cells. Blackboards used to write the rules “while getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”

Now, some of the rooms are set up like they found them, with shackles and bed frames and a horrible feeling that stopped me from walking in.

Most of the museum is filled with hundreds and hundreds of photographs of the victims, carefully documented. All with the same haircut and uniform.

We had to leave before seeing everything. All those eyes staring back from not so long ago. Little boys with ropes around their necks. Mothers holding babies.

We didn’t make it to the killing fields. This was enough.

But I’m glad to have gone, even though I think I’ll be haunted by the images I saw and the words I read for ever. But this cannot be ignored and it cannot be repeated.

If you want to learn about what happened in this terrifying chapter in human history, please check out www.yale.edu/cgp and www.tuolsleng.com.