When we reached Pnom Penh, our guide welcomed us with gifts of checkered cloth which he called krama. It has multiple uses for the Khmer- to keep off the sun when working in the rice fields, to carry food such as vegetables or corn, to give to one's love as a token. And finally the Khmers used it to hang themselves in the ultimate act of desperation when they saw no other option to escape from the brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Somehow it seemed an apt, albeit grisly reminder, of the reason I was here — to visit the Genocide Museum.

Pol Pot's prison

It looked like any other average school in Southeast Asia — long three- storeyed buildings whose whitewash has yellowed with the harsh heat and overuse. It was indeed an education for our little group of eight, one that will remain with us a longer time than the education given us by our blue- eyed Irish nuns in the convent schools we went to in South India.

The Genocide Museum was once the Tuol Svay Prey High School in Phnom Penh, and the five buildings in the complex were utilised to house prisoners who were being interrogated by the Pol Pot regime. It was then renamed Security prison 21 (S-21) in 1975 and the unspeakable horrors that went on here have been meticulously documented in the form of hundreds of photos taken by the prison authorities, instruments of torture and row upon row of grinning skulls.

I stopped cold in my tracks when my guide, himself a poignant casualty of that infamous regime, was detailing the events that led to the war in Cambodia. Our guide, a young man in his early forties, was one of six children who were parted from each other. It was only recently that he discovered one sister and brother in Canada. Of the rest he had no idea. What is like to have no past to hang on to? It was a topic that recurred to the four of us siblings and spouses when we were together for our family reunion at our next stop in Thailand where we laughed and got angry and became sad as we recounted childhood memories which bound us together.

The compound is surrounded by the original barbed wire. Building A, which was used for detaining cadres who were accused of leading the uprising against Pol Pot, had cage-like cells each with a bed, blanket, cushion, mat and an iron bucket for holding human waste. There were glass doors to minimise the screams of prisoners during interrogation. In Buildings C and D, the ground floor was divided into small cells by brick walls. And the first floor had larger cells capable of holding more prisoners. In front of the first building were the graves of the seven people who had been discovered- barely alive; the last of the victims. Frangipani trees shaded them, and the white starred flowers lay softly like a benediction on their graves.

Tyrannical regime

There was a gibbet-like structure in the yard, which was once a wooden pole for exercise. The hands of the prisoner were tied to his back and he was lifted in an upside down position again and again until he lost consciousness, then his head was dipped into a barrel of water. The moment he regained consciousness the process was repeated. It was not surprising that confessions were extracted very quickly, even to crimes not committed.

Rooms after rooms are full of photographs of people interrogated, impersonally documented by the interrogators. Most had their arms tied behind their backs. But their eyes tell a different story — of anguish and hopelessness, of sometimes a grim defiance. It is an unremittingly cruel glimpse of the estimated 20,000 prisoners — men, women and fresh-faced children — who passed through these walls. The photographs were mostly of Cambodians, although there were some foreigners too. Pol Pot's twisted ideology meant that anyone with an education was suspect, even one who wore glasses. The guide who took us to Angkor Wat told us that his father was taken away because he was a professor. He was never heard of again.

Pol Pot's dream was concentrated on the growing of rice. To that end he saw no need for urban cities, trade or markets, money or medicine. He wanted to eliminate all these; and educationists such as teachers, doctors and dissidents. Every one had to work for 18 hours a day under the pitiless Cambodian sun on pitiful rations of rice gruel, supervised by pitiless “cadres”.

In another prison (Tuol Sleng), according to an article in a National Geographic issue, there was a notice translated into English with a list of 10 regulations. The tenth read: “If you disobey any point of my regulations, you will get either 10 lashes or five shocks by electrification.” The fifth regulation reads: “While getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all.”

The skulls in the Tuol Svay Museum are in a cupboard, ghastly reminders of cruelty. Apparently the most grisly attraction was a map of Cambodia using skulls; fortunately it was dismantled in 2002. And it's said that the Vietnamese found this prison by following the stench of decay.