Prisons and Museums

All museums are different and unique, but any given museum is an adventure to me. They are like a flashback in time, a way to get to the past without a time machine. It is a chance to go through the past events and lives of people whom I have never met through old pictures, remains of letters, artifacts, and echoes of words that probably make very little sense nowadays. The collections in many museums grow large and older with every passing year. People who witnessed certain events might perish, and museums with their yellow pictures and dusty manuscripts are the only things that remind people how things happened in the past. In fact, time is not easy on anything. Great empires disappear, their people get older, and many relics in museums accumulate more dust. From the philosophical point of view, this is simply part of life. On the one hand, a place like a  museum can be considered a snapshot of one moment in the lives of humanity. On the other hand, a place like the Tuol Sleng Museum in Cambodia shows its visitors something more. It illustrates how precious is a moment of life by showing hundreds and hundreds of images of people who tried to live at least few moments longer.


On my itinerary list, the Security Prison (S 21) in Phenon Penh, Cambodia was considered to be another visit of yet another political prison. I expected it to be rather similar to Robben Island, for example, a place where the political opponents of the South African government spend their young years. My initial idea was to compare those two facilities turned museums.


Afterwards, I can say only one thing: in comparison to the Tuol Sleng Prison, Robben Island seems to be a five-star hotel and not a maximum security facility for political prisoners. Nelson Mandela, for example, served seventeen years in a seven-by-eight foot room for his political standing on the issue of apartheid. In S 21 (the number meant that the prison guards were about twenty-one years old with no education, but physically strong and ready to perform any orders without questioning them), people were lucky if they lived more than one week. To put it differently, the living conditions were so harsh that the guards of S 21 checked every prisoner every few hours for hidden objects they could use to commit suicide. The torture system in the prison was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. The “perpetrators” who were identified were executed. It is believed that the vast majority of prisoners were innocent people.


As a visitor, who had only one hour to look through the museum, I did not see much: only about two or three hundred images passed by my eyes. The whole place is designed like one big photo album with thousands of pictures around the compound and I simply had no time to go through everything. There are not many witnesses left, but according to the records, on any given day between 1975 and 1979 the prison held 1,000—1,500 prisoners. In three and a half years, approximately 90 thousand people were sentenced to death inside those walls. Imagine the archive size if upon arrival to the prison, everyone was photographed. Moreover, the tortured victims were photographed too.


The prison was a sort of the assembly line for death sentencing. The difference between the Robben Island and S 21 was in fact drastic: the walls of the former high school did not keep its prisoners for long. Only several people were taken for interrogation longer than two or three months, and only six or seven people survived. Thus walking among the pictures on the walls, seeing young and old faces on the photographs, and knowing their similar fates brings sorrow.


At the end of the Building “B”, there is a wall where somebody wrote with red paint, “I am free! Thanks to you!” Those simple words seem to be written in blood and they stay there as a reminder that the lives faded in that prison were not worthless and “cleansed” away. What is more important, the whole place demonstrates how our world can become a place of misery and agony, but a moment of life is still worth fighting for against all the odds. Otherwise, why would tortured people try to deny their charges even though they knew that there was no escape?

Nikolai Eber

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