A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It's a former high school that was used as a security prison (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime during its murderous rule from 1975-79. Not surprisingly, it's a tough place to visit: rooms where torture happened, the photographs of victims (and torturers who often then became victims themselves), and the reminder that only 7 people of the roughly 17,000 imprisoned there survived.
It's an incredibly important story and as with all Sites of Conscience, one all of us need to listen to. However, I was particularly struck by the gentle care that the museum took to provide space, both mentally and physically, to allow visitors to process these events, which feel like a kind of horrible madness. The excellent audio tour includes both narrative and historical testimony, including from the trial of the prison chief Duch (who, lest you think this is the distant past, was only convicted in 2010 by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and sentenced to life imprisonment).
Until just a few years ago, the center courtyard was just a paved space. But now it's green and lovely. Each time you leave a building you have a chance to take a deep breath, sit and reflect. The tour gives you a heads-up before you come to stops that may be really difficult to hear. The effective narrative reminds you that it is always humans--committing the genocide, resisting the genocide, and providing the testimony. Every day there is a dialogue forum with a survivor of the Pol Pot regime and the White Lotus Room provides visitors a chance to meditate in a cool, quiet room and listen to Khmer traditional music. The audio tour also provides traditional music that you can dip into and out of.
Upcoming on May 20 is the annual Remembrance Day, in memory of the spirits of the victims and when, according to the museum website, "Food and other offerings are made to the monks and as charitable acts to the poor."
The message of the site itself is the most important--as Tuol Sleng's director, Chhay Visoth notes:
My goal is for visitors to understand what happened here so that it never happens again—innocent people, including children, being imprisoned, tortured and killed. I want them to learn about the cruelty of this regime and remember the victims who died here, who were forced to make confessions for things they didn’t do and then put to death without mercy.
But it's constructive for other museum workers to note that the same compassion for victims extends, in a very different way, to a kind of compassion for visitors--and that this compassion is done with such simple tools: green spaces, cool rooms to rest, music--that have such power, power that helps ensure that visitors will always remember the experience and some of the faces and stories of the victims. It's worth noting that this care, this compassion for visitors comes from victims, as virtually every Cambodian of a certain age was affected, one way or another by the Khmer Rouge's actions. With that remembrance and that care, we can, as we daily remind ourselves at the Coalition of Sites of Conscience, "turn memory into action."