Welcome to your worst nightmare.
Nestled on a bustling Phnom Penh street sits S-21 – a name that sends a chill down the spine of anyone familiar with just a fraction of the atrocities that went on inside.
To the untrained eye, it could be classed as inconspicuous; easily missed if it weren’t for the maze of gnarled, rusting barbed wire that, combined with towering walls that cage the dreary compound, dash any hopes of escape.
When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in April 1975, they transformed one of the capital’s schools into the monster that stands today – a stark symbol of the destructive force the party unleashed on millions of innocent Cambodians.
In the four, long years that the cruel, iron fist of the Khmer Rouge crushed Cambodia, more than 14,000 men, women and children passed through Tuol Sleng’s fearsome gates.
Of them, it is believed only seven survived.
During our moving visit, we were lucky enough to meet one of them – a privilege that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Sheltering from the oppressive midday heat was Bou Meng. Frail, worn and looking much older than his 70 years, his gentle face wore a beaming grin that masks his eternal pain.
Unaware of the Khmer Rouge’s distorted communist vision of transforming beautiful Cambodia into a utopic agrarian society, Bou Meng was duped into joining the party in the early 1970s with promises of fighting for the freedom his country yearned for after years of civil war.
But as the darkness seeped in and the party’s true motives were unveiled, Bou Meng and his wife, Neary, found themselves being transported to the slaughter house masquerading as an interrogation centre for political prisoners.
That was the last day Bou Meng would see his young wife. His final moments with her spent paralysed by a sense of overwhelming fear and helplessness as guards pinned her down for the fatal mug shot taken of every prisoner to walk through the doors. A photo he still carries in his top pocket, never able to let go, and one of thousands of pictures that stand in endless rows evoking a silent anger and rising sorrow at the atrocities committed.
After two weeks of unimaginable torture, shackles, starvation and forced confessions, it was Bou Meng’s artistic skills and Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s spiralling narcissism that saved him from a fate served to far too many.
Having killed most of Cambodia’s artists, the Khmer Rouge was on the hunt for someone to feed their vanity. They needed an artist – the best – to paint a flawless portrait of Pol Pot.
Bou Meng was their man and was kept alive to meticulously immortalise every last detail of the tyrant’s face; details that have cruelly been etched into his mind where they will remain forever.
But Bou Meng survived, and two decades after leaving the prison he returned, determined to tell his story so the world will never forget, and to fight for the justice that Cambodians deserve.
So every now and again, he makes the trip to what is now the Teul Sleng Genocide Centre to tell visitors like me his story so we can share it with the world and let everyone know the atrocities that took place.
Bou Meng, a truly humble man, doesn’t want revenge. He just wants justice for himself, his wife, the dead, and justice for the millions of others who suffered under the tyrannical regime. We can only hope that justice will soon be served.