Tuol Sleng is a portrait of cruelty. Photographs of emaciated corpses dress the rooms in a macabre wallpaper, and rusty blood spatter stains the ceilings—evidence of the systematic arrest, torture, and slaughter of Cambodian civilians during the haunting reign of the Khmer Rouge. Decades after playing an integral role in one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century, the former detention center now invites tourists inside to explore its history of violence.
The scene at Tuol Sleng is not unusual. Each year, millions of so-called “dark tourists” flock to war memorials, natural disaster sites, and decommissioned prisons around the world to witness what remains of their tragic pasts.
The Auschwitz concentration camp was established by German authorities in 1940 in the suburbs of Oświęcim to hold Poles detained in mass arrests. By 1942 it was one of the largest networks of Nazi death camps, where prisoners were subjected to forced labor, inhumane medical experiments, and mass killings. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (above) is a memorial and museum devoted to the memory of those who were murdered in the camps—an estimated 1,100,000 people—during World War II.
In 1982 Israeli forces invaded southern Lebanon after years of brewing tensions. In response, a newly formed militant group, Hezbollah, waged a guerilla campaign against the incursion. Thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced during the bitter 18-year occupation, which finally ended in 2000 when Israel withdrew its forces. The Tourist Landmark of the Resistance (above) opened in 2010 in Mleeta—a strategic military base for Hezbollah—to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal.
On May 12, 2008, a massive earthquake shook the mountainous region of Sichuan Province in southwestern China. Entire villages and towns were obliterated by the 7.9 magnitude quake. An estimated 90,000 people were killed, including more than 5,300 children, and millions were displaced from their homes. A memorial sculpture (above) opened in 2009 in front of a collapsed middle school in Yingxiu Township, the epicenter of the earthquake. The large granite clock reads 2:28 p.m., the time the first tremors struck.
Torture and execution were commonplace at Karosta Prison (above) near Liepaja, Latvia, which was used as a Nazi and Soviet military prison for most of the 20th century. The military prison has since been converted into a museum, where visitors can glimpse life behind bars and stay the night.
In April of 1986, a series of mistakes at the Chernobyl power plant in the Soviet Union compounded into the worst nuclear disaster in history. Several explosions blew the lid off reactor number four, releasing a cloud of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Winds carried the toxic dust over Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, leaving millions of acres of contaminated land in its wake. Over 100,000 people were permanently evacuated, and radiation-related illnesses continue to plague those who were exposed to high levels of the noxious material. Tourists can now visit the Exclusion Zone, the abandoned area surrounding the reactor. The ghost town of Pripyat, Ukraine, (above) was deemed unsafe for human settlement for 24,000 years.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, initiating a bloody genocide that ultimately claimed the lives of an estimated 1.7 million people. In a radical attempt to create a classless society, people were stripped of their titles and possessions and forced into hard labor on communal farms in the countryside. Those who didn’t perish from disease and starvation were detained and tortured in execution centers like Tuol Sleng (above). An estimated 17,000 prisoners passed through the former high school turned prison and ultimately ended up buried in the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh.
Between April and July 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in Rwanda slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people and raped a quarter of a million women in a crushingly violent campaign to exterminate the Tutsi minority. In the aftermath of the massacre, approximately two million Hutus fled to Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) in fear of retaliation, further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Genocide memorials in Rwanda (above) preserve and display the bones of the dead.