“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.” ~S-21 Prison Memorial inscription
Eyes of crudely mounted photographs, pre-death mug shots in essence, seem to follow as Jody and I moved silently through the horrific halls of S-21. The peering stares of over 6,000 men, women and children unknowingly destined for demise seem to plead for intervention. Perhaps the saddest photo is that of a young mother and her baby lying by her side, blankly staring into the camera with an almost vacant expression of indignant resignation. All those photographed shared a tragic predicament – not knowing that they were facing imminent death just at the moment their photos were being taken – a commonality which results in a profoundly unnerving experience for any viewer.
In early January 1979, on a bright and breezy Cambodian wintery afternoon, heavily armed Vietnamese military reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh after a blitzkrieg campaign beginning the previous Christmas Day. Vietnam had had enough of the obnoxiously militant culture that the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge of Democratic Kampuchea (“DK,” how the régime referred to Cambodia) had installed. And in an interesting turn of events just a handful of years after their victory over the Americans, Vietnam was doing something about the brutal, genocidal, suicidal régime next door when no one else in the world would.
The Khmer Rouge was taken aback in surprise by the rapidity of Vietnam’s assault. After barely two weeks of fighting, Cambodia cracked open as easily as that of a raw egg. The Khmer Rouge dissolved into the rural jungle and countryside just as quickly as it had appeared, while the invaders were welcomed as liberators by nearly every Cambodian who was left behind. Those people, altogether terrorized and literally exhausted by nearly four years of undernourishment, back-breaking labor, and widespread fear and executions, were ready for change. They were simply looking for peace, safety and security after decades of war in Southeast Asian, followed by a years-long internal civil war, and finally from the wretched atrocities suffered by their own peoples’ hand.
As the Vietnamese troops secured the city, two photojournalists accompanying the invasion were drawn by the unmistakably smell of decomposing bodies. As they approached the silent source of the foul odor they noticed a large fenced compound topped with dense, electrified coils of barbed wire. The entrance gate was only marked with a single Revolutionary sounding slogan in Khmer colors of red and white: “Fortify the spirit of the revolution! Be on your guard against the strategy and tactics of the enemy so as to defend the Country, the People and the Party.” Nothing else identified this curious place.
Once inside, though, the photogs found themselves on the grounds of what had once been a large school, about two city blocks in size, consisting of four three-story buildings in the shape of a right-hand bracket (if facing north), each with open-air breezeway balconies on their successive floors. An additional single-story building, found littered with papers and office equipment, split the compound, dividing it into nearly identical halves.
It was the rooms of the building on the southern end of this arrangement that brought the first horrors. Here the journalists discovered several murder victims, some still chained to simple iron bedframes, in rooms almost complete barren. Most had suffered numerous serious injuries, but almost all had their throats slashed, and the blood pooled below the beds, although congealing, was at places still wet. In total, 14 victims were found, killed only a couple of days previously.
But what was discovered in the other buildings is what started to illuminate the sinister nature of the place: heaps of ankle shackles, hundreds of handcuffs, whips of various material, and lengths of chain and electrical cord. Other former classrooms had been crudely divided into cells by clumsily bricked partitions, while others still had more elaborate and larger cells created by wooden walls and doors. Metal American 7.62mm ammo boxes in some of the cells contained human feces. The Vietnamese had stumbled into a vicious and important Khmer Rouge killing facility known as S-21, “S” standing for “santebal,” a Khmer term that combined the words santisuk (security) and nokorbal (police).
S-21 now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which chronicles the auto-genocide that happened in Cambodia in the 1970s under the inhuman Khmer Rouge régime. Tuol Sleng translates roughly as “Hill of the Poisonous Trees,” and was but one of at least 150 execution centers dispersed throughout the country. Although some estimates put the death toll from S-21 as high as 20,000, a more accurate number is probably somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge began to adapt the school as a prison. The buildings were cordoned into a compound enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, windows were covered with iron bars, and balconies covered with a thick matrix of razor wire to prevent suicidal leaps from the upper floors.
At any one time, the prison held as many as 1,000–1,500 prisoners. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Western-propped Cambodian Lon Nol regime and consisted of mostly soldiers and government officials, but also included academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, and engineers. But during early 1977, when the Khmer Rouge enacted large-scale internal purges, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived.
Most lower-ranking prisoners at S-21 were held for a few days or weeks, whereas more important ones and those suspected of grave offenses were routinely incarcerated for several months. Thousands of prisoners, regardless of their perceived importance, had undergone interrogation, prepared concocted confessions admitting counter-revolutionary crimes up to several hundred pages long, and submitted lists of their friends, family and associates entitled “strings” that sometimes ran to several hundred names. These false indictments kept the cycle of paranoia and death endlessly flowing. All the dots making up each string were ultimately “smashed.”
Few prisoners maintained their innocence for long under the torture widely inflicted at S-21. Considered guilty by the very fact that they were arrested in the first place, prisoners were all expected to confess their imaginary associations with the West and the CIA, or with the East and the KGB, or worse yet, with Vietnam in writing before they were taken off to be “smashed,” the Khmer euphemism for murder. Routinely beaten and shocked with electricity, nearly drowned by water-boarding and forced submerging, burned with searing hot metal instruments, suffocated with plastic bags, cut with knives and hung to near-death, prisoners confessed to that with which they were charged.
The buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The site has four main buildings, the first of which holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims of the prison were discovered. The second offers gallery after gallery of photographs of those tortured and ultimately executed. The third presents the original classrooms which were sub-divided into smaller cells for prisoners, while the final holds some interesting artwork by former S-21 inmate Vann Nath depicting torture alongside the actual instruments pictured. The last classroom of the last building contains a small Buddhist altar and stupa (burial tower), and empties into a large courtyard which features a remembrance memorial to the victims and the atrocity which occurred there.
Most of the rooms of the first building are bare, containing only a rusting iron bedframe, along with a black and white photograph hung on a wall. The grisly photo reflects the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each, the mutilated, bloated and decomposing body of a prisoner is shown, usually chained to a bed situated over pool of still-wet blood, obviously and brutally murdered by their fleeing captors only a day or two before the prison was uncovered.
The other buildings display about 6,000 silent, melancholy portraits. Some of the striking black and white images portray shock, while others reflect a depressed resignation. Others portray confusion. While it’s the scenes of mass graves and thousands of bones which are used to capture the imagination, the most haunting images are these stark portraits taken and preserved by the Khmer Rouge at S-21. Since the original negatives and photographs were separated from their respective records, most of the photographs remain anonymous today.
The museum today helps to provide an organized archive of Cambodia’s brutal past in the hopes that history will not be repeated. Combined with the Killing Fields close by at Choeung Ek (see Seeing The Killing Fields for my blog about that depressing place), it’s hard to escape the brutal reality of the evil which infected these places. For survivors, the vast and seemingly random cruelties of the Khmer Rouge are captured and effectively condensed in the museum’s displays. The indifference of the DK government officials, exhibited in room after room, is all too clear for anyone to see. But the museum, at times, overly represents the Khmer Rouge as a homogenous group of indoctrinated fanatics, the incarnation of absolute evil, responsible for most of the unhappiness of the Cambodian people. While this may be an easy or attractive explanation, it falls well short of the much more convoluted complexion of the Khmer Rouge phenomenon of the 1970s.
A visit to S-21 is at once disorienting. There is a stark, esoteric contrast between the now peaceful, green and sun-soaked compound against the horrific exhibits and photographs on display. There is an almost unbelievable dichotomy between the sounds of children playing outside superimposed over the silent induction photos of the many children and teens which were held at S-21 and ultimately smashed. The sheer ordinariness of the place makes it even more horrific.
Together with a visit to the museum’s companion Killing Fields, the experience can be profoundly depressing, one our guide referred to as our “Sad-Sad day of touring.” While a broad debate continues to rage over the nature and appropriateness of “dark tourism,” I remain steadfast in my own personal convictions that we must experience such places firsthand. Only when the darkest aspects of the human spirit are seared into our collective consciousness will the evil that lurks in the shadows be remembered and banished from our civility.