Faces of Death: Haunting Victims of S-21


“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.” ~S-21 Prison Memorial inscription

S-21 Genocide Memorial

S-21 Genocide Memorial

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time 2 WMEyes 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.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), mom and baby victims WM

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.

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prisoner transport WMThe 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.

White Graves of 2 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

White Graves of 4 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building A 2 WMAs 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.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building C WM

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.

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

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.

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 10 WM

Improvised Toilets

Improvised Toilets

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).

Captive Chains

Captive Chains

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.

Balcony Razor Wire

Balcony Razor Wire

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.

Crude Prison Cells

Crude Prison Cells

Postmortem, Death from Torture

Postmortem, Death from Torture

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.

Wooden Prison Cells

Wooden Prison Cells

Crude Destruction

Crude Destruction

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.”

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

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.

Water Board for Torture

Water Board for Torture

Imprisoned

Imprisoned

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), instruments of torture WMThe 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.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), barbed balconies WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 8 WMMost 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.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 6 WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP brother shackled in prison WMThe 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.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time WM

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

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.

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

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.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), ankle shackle and rebar restraint WM

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.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), never forget the crimes WM

Seeing Red: Khmer Rouge and The Killing Fields


 Well you’ll work harder | With a gun in your back | For a bowl of rice a day

Slave for soldiers | Till you starve | Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one | Now you can go where they get things done

What you need, my son…

Is a holiday in Cambodia | Where people dress in black

A holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot!

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll do what you’re told

A holiday in Cambodia | Where the slums got so much soul

~ Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial stupa WM

Buddhist Memorial Stupa

The tall Buddhist memorial stood in relative silence, highlighted against the bright blue skies, appearing to lean in against the fast-moving puffy white clouds. The heat of the morning was coming on strong, keeping most people in close proximity to whatever shade could be had. But it is the chilling sight of the over 8,000 human skulls stacked tier after tier within the memorial stupa that stuns most into the deep, contemplative silence that permeates this place.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), skulls in the stupa WM

Over 8,000 Skulls are Interred within the Stupa

The skulls came from the shallow, sunken mass graves all found within 100 yards of this their final resting place. And all are eerily marked with colored dots to show age, sex, and the weapon which brought their previous owner’s demise.

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim skulls at rest in the pagoda WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), map to the Choeung Ek filling fields WMThe Killing Fields (Khmer: វាលពិឃាត) are a number of sites spread all over Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were systemically murdered and secretly buried by the Khmer Rouge regime during its savage rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. The scale, scope and premeditated nature of these crimes is on a scale that only be rightfully recognized as state-sponsored auto-genocide. Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “killing fields” after his escape from the regime; the movie of the same name is set against his captivity and suffering under the brutal régime.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave at the Killing Fields (Nath painting

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), women and children mass grave by the killing tree WM

One of the many mass graves.

It is hard to wrap your head around these kinds of numbers. We experience tragedy in America measured normally in single digits (the recent church shootings in the south), or perhaps hundreds (say a plane crash), or in very rare instances, thousands (terrorist attacks of 9-11). However, what would happen in our country and how we would respond and attempt recovery if tragedy visited on a scale that was say 100 or even 1,000 times higher in order of magnitude?

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim bones WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), show your respect WMAnalysis of 20,000 mass grave sites across Cambodia indicate there are at least 1.3 million victims of summary execution. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from an absolute minimum of 1.7 million dead, but all indications point to a number of somewhere between 2 and 3 million. Even the Khmer Rouge themselves acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to Vietnam’s subsequent invasion in 1979. Most accounts settle on a likely death toll which approaches 2.2 million. Given that in 1975 the population of Cambodia was somewhere south of 8 million, somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 people alive in the late 1970s was methodically erased by the government. There is not a family in Cambodia that wasn’t personally touch by devastation.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), human remains (teeth) WM

Victims’ teeth we found scattered about.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), do not walk on the mass grave WMOutside, on the grounds of this memorial park, I was equally as stunned to find human teeth and other bone fragments scattered about as if just tossed there just yesterday. Our guide explained to us that there are still so many people buried here in shallow graves that their bones and clothes continue to be resurrected as the ground erodes away with heavy rains and tourists’ many feet. And those exhumations by the Vietnamese in the 1980s only collected skulls and large bones in order to try and assess the magnitude of the murder which occurred there. There are boxes spread across the park so that found bones can be placed for later collection; at other sites, posted signs plead for people not to walk on bones and the mass grave sites.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), don't step on bone WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), jaws and teeth WMThe best known of Cambodia’s many Killing Fields is located at once was the village of Choeung Ek. Today, the site has been almost subsumed by the creeping urban sprawl of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Here visitors find a memorial park and Buddhist stupa (burial tower), built around the mass graves of over 14,000 victims, most of whom were executed after being tortured at the infamous S-21 Prison about 10 miles away in Phnom Penh. Many dozens of exhumed mass graves remain visible.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), rags of victims' clothes WM

Bone fragments are everywhere.

Bone fragments are everywhere.

The place is at once fascinatingly horrifying, and rightfully so. But to think that it is just one of the thousands of other such sites around the country where the Khmer Rouge practiced auto-genocide during the late 1970s is hard to comprehend.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave 450 victims WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victims' stares WMThe Khmer Rouge eventually executed almost everyone suspected of even remote connections with the former or foreign governments, as well as almost every professional and anyone with any type of education…and even those with poor eyesight in a vain effort to genetically improve their mix. Ethnicities which were undesirable, like the Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham, along with the religious such as Cambodian Christians and the local Buddhist monkhood were equally targeted and suffered almost wholesale destruction. What makes this genocide so abhorrent is that, unlike the Nazis who visited death upon others, the Cambodians did it to themselves.

Victim's clothes still litter the grounds.

Victim’s clothes still litter the grounds.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killed by hand at the Killing FieldsR.J. Rummel, an acclaimed analyst of worldwide political killings, highlights the Khmer Rouge’s clear genocidal intent. He states that of the estimated 40,000-60,000 monks in 1975, only between 800 and 1,000 survived to carry on their religion. We know for a fact that of 2,680 monks documented living in eight specific monasteries in 1975, a mere 70 remained living as of 1979. The Khmer Rouge destroyed 95 percent of the country’s Buddhist temples, turning them instead into warehouses or using them for other mundane and degrading uses. But it’s much worse, argues Rummel. Within the very short span of a year or so, a small clique of Khmer Rouge criminals managed to effectively wipe out the center of Cambodian culture, along with its spiritual incarnation and its social and governmental institutions.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), the killing fields' killing tree WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), evidence of killing tools WMThe executed were buried in mass graves throughout the country, at night and with loudspeaker music playing in order to help escape detection and hide the crimes. Since ammunition was so prized, executions were most often carried out using farm tools, like spades, axes, iron rods, wagon axles, knives, or at times from simple sharpened bamboo. And in the case of the “killing tree,” small children and infants were swung so their heads were battered by the tree’s hard trunk, then thrown away like garbage into a pit alongside their dead parents. The régime took the approach that if one member of a family was sentenced to death, the whole familial line had to be destroyed to avoid any chance of future revenge; “…to cut the grass you have to remove all the roots.” Another guiding principle of that time was, “better to kill an innocent by mistake than let one enemy go…. To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss….”

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killing tools WM

Items used in detainment and execution.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial friendship bracelets WM

Friendship bracelets.

Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was called under the Khmer Rouge) in 1979, ending this dark reign of terror. Late that year, when United Nations and Red Cross officials were able to physically take stock of the dire situation, a further 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to the widespread destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot. International aid saved a large portion of these Cambodians.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), inhuman humans

Small museum on the premises.

Small museum on the premises.

But for me there was a deeper realization during my visit. It’s not just sadness that I felt for the victims still buried or on display at The Killing Fields, but for Cambodia as a whole. The sadness became wider and deeper than I had expected, after realizing that everyone in Cambodia, then and now, was and in many ways, remain a victim. I believe that most everyone were left with nightmares. Even those child soldiers of the régime that were forced to join the revolution, who were then methodically brainwashed and turned to even kill their own parents. Almost every tourist that goes to Cambodia goes to see Angkor Wat; over 30% now go to visit The Killing Fields as well. In an odd congruity, both sites offer a profound sense of spirituality.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave missing heads WM

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

We ended up seeing The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and its associated prison S-21 on the same day. Our guide, who was only a small child during the time of The Killing Fields but who suffered personal loss in her own family, called it our “sad-sad” day of visiting Cambodia. And she’s absolutely right: The Killing Fields is not a happy place. Nor is there a happy history or stimulating story to learn about. But like with the other truly horrific events of humanity, we don’t get to pick and choose what should and should not be shared, exactly because it is a shared history. In Cambodian, like most other countries which have suffered a dark, sad past, the view is that light must be allowed to shine in on the darkness, destroying shadows where such evil can continue to lurk.

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

And in the heat of our Cambodian holiday, the light shines brightly indeed.