Hell: Code Name S-21 (Tuol Sleng)

Cambodia, Feature, Travelogue — By on January 16, 2011 at 8:34 pm

I haven’t come across many people who know the history of this former high school.  It was used as a prison during the Khmer Rouge reign between 1976 and 1979.  This was a place of intense interrogation, torture, starvation, and mass executions.  This was a place where members of society were forced to confess acts of treason and were, in effect, purged from society.  Today, it is called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, 30 years ago it was simply known as S-21.

A total of about 14,000 men, women and children were imprisoned here, in cells that measured about 3 meters long by about 80cm wide.  Despite there not being much room to move around, they were still chained to the floor and given an old metal ammunition box for a toilet.  Most of the cells were makeshift wooden walls built to hold a single prisoner. There were also some rooms where “less important” prisoners would be stuffed shoulder to shoulder in sweltering heat with inmates suffering from rampant diarrhea and dysentery. The prison held as many as 1400 prisoners at one time, and at one point as few as 300.  During times when the prison was full, the busloads of new arrestees were simply taken straight to the killing fields at Choeung Ek and executed.  Anyone with an education, or linked to anyone with an education, had traveled, had been even remotely associated with another political group, had at any time been sympathetic towards Viet Nam or Thailand, or had purchased or subscribed to any publication deemed ‘Western’ or American was forced to confess under torture and exterminated along with their children, friends, colleagues and extended families. Pol Pot and his ‘brothers’ deemed them ‘internal enemies’.

There are only a handful of survivors from S-21, seven of them have shared their nightmares with writers and so forth.  Otherwise, what happened in this compound may never have been known.  Pol Pot ordered the city cleared, there were no non-party or politically affiliated residents of the city.  The citizens were ordered out to forced labor fields to grow rice.  Some were bused in to work in factories but were unaware of the going ons.  After the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, two photographers were lured to the deserted school buildings by the smell and sheer curiosity.  They found the remaining 14 prisoners still chained to their beds with their throats cut no more than two days earlier.  The beds, chains and original grisly photos from that day are on display as they were found 31 years ago.  Bloodstains are still visible.    One of the survivors was a painter and has painted several scenes depicting his memories of daily life and the torture methods used.  His written and verbal account describe a place where speaking was forbidden unless you were asked a direct question by a guard.  Food was delivered to the cells once in the morning and once in the evening usually consisting of no more than a salted rice ball.  Once a day their ammunition boxes were emptied.  The will to resist was quickly diminished, and many died before they were interrogated.  Those who were interrogated did so under extreme duress and torture and likely admitted whatever they thought the interrogators wanted to hear.   Torture sessions would go on all night and all day with electricity, water, fingernail torture and so on.  Sleep was difficult and sometimes impossible while hearing the moaning from the interrogation room. Ironically, beating the prisoners was not allowed by guards, only interrogators.  With these crimes, many guards became prisoners themselves and lived in fear of being on the other side so if they were ordered to kill, they killed.  There are some recounts by guards posted on the walls of the museum where they fully admit to their involvement in torture and killing.  It is hard to find fault with someone who killed someone else with a gun held to their own head.  Some chose death, some chose to kill.  Meticulous records were kept on entry, including confessions and photos (mug shots). If a prisoner died or was killed at S-21, post mortem photos were also kept.  Many of these documents did not survive the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.  Those that did were left for us to piece together what happened to so many of Cambodia’s citizens.  The museum was arranged and catalogued with Vietnamese help and money, the archivist was the same person (Mai Lam) who set up the Museum of American War Crimes (now called The War Remnants Museum) in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  Some Cambodians were resentful towards the Vietnamese, yet thankful that there was a place to try and track down relatives.  It was opened in 1980 only to Cambodians and a few years later opened to foreign visitors.

A place like S-21 is a difficult place to walk around in because the buildings seem to hold on to the memories.  One gets an eerie chill when occupying a space with such a violent history.  There are endless entry photos of people – men, women, and children – staring blankly at the camera. When you look at them, you are not sure what they see on the other side of the camera. Did they know their fate?  Some did, some didn’t. An energy, unfamiliar to me, resonates in the walls and the remaining furniture.  I laid my hands on the walls and the bed frames and closed my eyes and I swear I could feel the pulse of evil.  I couldn’t help thinking, this still happens.  Our next destination had no less of an impact, the destination for those condemned, often without reason: Choeung Ek, aka, The Killing Fields.

Inside one of the cells at S-21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The "toilet" and the chains that once bound a prisoner by the ankle, S-21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Row of cells at S-21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A sign at Building C, S-21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Inside one of the larger cells used for more important prisoners. This particular cell held one of the last victims, the photo on the wall is how the room was discovered, the bloody remains of a man still chained to the bed. S-21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A small sample of the endless rows of entry and postmortem photos at S-21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

S-21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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