- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia Tuol Sleng prison was Cambodia's most unholy ground, a place where thousands were tortured while awaiting execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.

As Cambodians await justice for the few surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, those responsible for maintaining Tuol Sleng as a genocide museum are desperate for funds to keep the memorial from crumbling. It is not even on the government's list of historic sites needing conservation funds.

Chey Sopheara, the museum's director, said up to $400,000 is needed for major renovations of its four decrepit buildings that are under major threat from rain and termites.

"The buildings are corroding daily, and if no repairs are made, they could sink in or collapse," he said.

The Culture Ministry's director-general, Sim Sarak, agrees the museum needs to be repaired, but says the government cannot afford it. The ministry's entire budget this year is just $2.85 million, which is 0.4 percent of the overall $687 million budget.

Cambodia should look overseas for help, Mr. Sarak said. Relying on the government budget "is just a dead end," he said.

Of the estimated 14,000 prisoners who passed through the gates of this Asian Auschwitz during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, only seven survived. Age and illness have winnowed the survivors' numbers to two, and when they are gone, the museum's importance as evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities will only increase.

Ruling ruthlessly from 1975 to 1979, the ultra-leftist group led by Pol Pot tried to remake Cambodia into an agrarian utopia using radical policies that led to the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians from disease, starvation, overwork and execution.

Built in 1963, Tuol Sleng was a school until the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. They turned it into a prison called S-21, where "enemies" most of them Khmer Rouge loyalists fallen out of favor with paranoid rulers were interrogated and tortured into composing confessions.

The victims men, women and children then were taken out of town to be executed and tossed into mass graves that came to be known as the "killing fields."

The museum (which can be visited at www.cambodia-web.net/camtourist/toulsleng) has been a major tourist attraction for Cambodians and foreigners, who usually wrap up their tours with a look at a particularly dramatic exhibit: a map of Cambodia made from human skulls.

"I felt sorrow for those children Pol Pot made suffer," said Put Pisey, a 13-year-old schoolgirl visiting the museum with four classmates during a class break. "What Pol Pot did was even more vicious than wild animals."

Some of the rooms in Tuol Sleng displayed the iron cots on which prisoners were tortured. Others contained montages of faded passport-size pictures of the victims every inmate was photographed before being admitted.

Above the staircase inside building B, a big chunk of the ceiling is missing. Spilling through the broken roof, rain has left brown stains on the walls. Dirt carpets the steps leading to the common cell where dusty piles of prisoners' clothes and ration containers are on display.

The leaking roof in that room has eaten away a portion of the ceiling, and the trails of cracks show more will come off any day.

"Whenever it rains, water just runs down the stairs and floods the ground floor," said Mr. Sopheara.

Meager resources have denied the museum proper care since it opened 23 years ago. The $2 entrance fee charged to foreign visitors, along with any contributions, can provide only for minor maintenance and pay incentives to the museum's 38 employees, Mr. Sopheara said.

In building C, whose 6½-by 5-foot cells held important prisoners, termites have left a nearly 8-inch gap between the staircase and the lower wall that supported it. A warning sign for visitors stands nearby.

The floor has sunk and the tiles have become loose, the result of termites and the daily stress of visitors' feet, Mr. Sopheara said.

The former director of the prison, Kang Kek Ieu, is one of only two Khmer Rouge leaders in government custody. The other is Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge military commander.

Efforts to bring these two and other leaders to trial have stalled, with the United Nations and Cambodia's government unable to agree on how a tribunal should be run.

Meanwhile, the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders live freely among the people they once brutalized. Among them are Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister; Khieu Samphan, the former head of state; and Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue. Pol Pot died in 1998.

"I very much would like Ieng Sary to come to see his own achievements," said Mr. Sopheara, who lost his father and a brother to Khmer Rouge executions.

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