Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Cramped cells in the S-21 prison
I’m in a high school courtyard in Phnom Penh, but this is no ordinary school. With several three story high buildings, there is room here for over a thousand students.

Or prisoners.

After the communist Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975, they converted this school into a prison called 'S-21'. It is today known as Tuol Sleng. Once a place of youth and learning, this school was transformed into a place of unspeakable torture and inhumanity. I had already seen the down sides of ‘revolution’ in neighboring Vietnam and Laos, but nowhere were the communists more evil and murderous than here in Cambodia.

Of the more than 17,000 people who were imprisoned here at Tuol Sleng, only 7 prisoners survived. All the thousands of others who were brought here were executed, tortured to death, or died in their cells from disease or mistreatment. The only reason that those 7 inmates were allowed to live, was because they happened to possess skills that their captors could use. One was an artist, forced to carve busts of their maniac leader Pol Pot. Another was a photographer, who took mug shots of doomed prisoners. 

Dreading what I'm going to see here, I enter the former school, walking into what once was a classroom. But the desks are gone, replaced by several sets of poorly built prison cells. Some are made of wood, others made of brick. There's no electricity; the only light peeks in from windows and small vents, leaving dark shadows across the room. I step into one of the eerie cells to get the feel of the place. Claustrophobic isn't the word; I’ve been in closets bigger than this. This cell is so small, there isn't enough room to lie down. For the prisoners it was far worse, they had to share these cells with other inmates.

Inmates were inhumanely shackled together by their ankles, to these metal poles
Stepping back out, I find a door has been knocked out through the school room wall's center, revealing another room full of cells. No door frame was installed; jagged brick and mortar was left exposed. Looking through, I see another crude door cut into the next room's far wall, and the next. This crudely cut hallway made it easier for the Khmer Rouge to police their doomed prisoners.

Exiting this gloomy scene, I head upstairs to the main detention rooms. On this level there there are no cells. Prisoners' ankles were locked in leg shackles, attached directly to a long steel pole on the floor. This forced prisoners to lie on the tiled floor tightly together, side by side, all day and night. This kept them immobilized; a method of confinement learned from French colonials. To relieve themselves, they had to use a bucket where they lay. Hygiene was non-existent; this led to rampant diarrhea. Shackled to these poles, inmates sometimes couldn't get a bucket, leaving them to lie in their own feces. They were released from these shackles only for interrogation and torture.

Barbed wire on upper walkways was to prevent prisoner suicides
I leave the room for the walkway, which like most Asian schoolhouses, is open to the exterior. Here I find barbed wire, stretched from the railings to the ceiling. The barbed wire was installed to prevent the prisoners from jumping to their deaths. Some of the poor souls here chose suicide, rather than continuing to endure the torture and horrific conditions of S-21.

On average, the prisoners of Tuol Sleng survived here for 1 - 3 months, until their 'interrogation' was complete. By that time, repeated torture had forced them into confessing to crimes, real or imagined. Then they were taken away to be executed in the killing fields.

At times S-21 was packed with prisoners beyond capacity. There were occasions when truckloads of prisoners arrived, and the prison was already overfilled. So the trucks never unloaded. The prisoners were just sent off for immediate execution.

Entering an adjacent school building, I find another former class room. In happier times, eager students were questioned by their teachers here. But after the communists took over, there was questioning in this room of a different kind. The Khmer Rouge called it an interrogation room. What it really was used for, was torture.

Torture room used by Khmer Rouge, with cat sleeping under the bed
The horrors wroght by the Khmer Rouge finally came to light in 1979, when they fled Phnom Penh ahead of the advancing Vietnamese Army. When Vietnamese troops first captured this prison, they were appalled by what they saw. Entering this very room, they found the mutilated body of a man lying on a bed, his leg still shackled to the frame. On the floor beneath the bed was a pool of blood. In the next room, they found a similar gruesome scene. And the next room, and the next. In all, there were 14 corpses in this building, and all had been tortured to death. One of them was a woman. Each was left lying where they had died, as the torturers and guards had fled the city. Before the Vietnamese soldiers removed the bodies, they photographed each gory scene; a photo showing the gruesome scene found in this room is on the wall. The unnamed torture victims are buried in the school courtyard.

This sad room is now eerily quiet and calm. Except for the corpse, most of what was originally found in this room was left right where it was found. The bed is still here, with a bamboo mat stretched across it. There’s an ammunition case - prisoners used it as a toilet. There's a shovel, used as a torture implement. Looking closer on the floor, is another disturbing sight. Spots of blood stains, left from the room’s final victim.

This room may be the most evil place I've ever seen. Unspeakable acts took place here. It is truly unfathomable, that any man could do this to his fellow man. A sign posted outside lists the 10 rules that prisoners had to follow during interrogations. Presuming the prisoner's guilt, numbers 6, 9 and 10, are chillingly brutal.

Torture rooms seen at the left, the last victims were buried in the school courtyard
1. you must answer accordingly to my questions – Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. you must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. when I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting
8. Don’t make any pretext about Kampuchea Krom (Lower Cambodia) in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either 10 lashes or 5 shocks of electric discharge.
Of all 17,000 prisoners, only these 7 men survived (museum photo)

The windows of the interrogation rooms, are different from others in the prison. Unlike others that only had French shutters, the interrogation rooms all had glass windows. This was because when the prisoners were being tortured here, their screams of pain and agony could be heard throughout the prison. So they installed glass windows to make the screams less audible.

The other torture rooms, have similar scenes with similar furniture. Beds, chains, and primitive torture implements. Each has an enlarged photo on the wall, showing the graphic scene of how the prisoner's bloody corpse was found here on the final day. 

One room has a strange difference. For some reason, a stray cat is lying under the foot of the bed, sound asleep, at peace. 
The old school and former prison is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

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