Friday, October 3, 2014


Photos of women and girls executed at S-21 (aka Tuol Sleng) in Phnom Penh
Jaw dropping. This is unbelievable, and not in a good way. 

I'm in the infamous ex-prison known as S-21, built by the communists in a Phnom Penh school. I've already seen prison cells, and the awful interrogation rooms used for torture. It's no wonder that several ex-Khmer Rouge leaders are now on trial for crimes against humanity.

I enter the last prison building, and this schoolroom is full of photos. There are enlarged 8X10 pictures of prisoners, each taken as they arrived to S-21. The photos are mounted on both sides of large easels. There are 140 on each, with 10 easels in the room. Face after face after face, adding up to 1,400 photos of people who were imprisoned here, and murdered. And that’s just this room. In the next room are more pictures, and the next room, and the next. How disturbing. 

Most of the prisoners have some kind of ID number pinned to their shirt, the black communist uniform all were forced to wear. All the men have their arms tied behind their back.
Male inmates of S-21, later executed

Most photos were shot mugshot style, but a few are very graphic, showing the victims after they’ve been tortured to death. A few photos show the unlucky foreigners that were killed here. The Khmer Rouge were so xenophobic, that being a foreigner could bring a death sentence.

I look at another section of photos. These are all women. Nearly all of these ladies have their hair cut in a bob, the hairstyle forced on them by the Khmer Rouge. A couple women hold their child in their arms. Most adults have a stoic look on their face, which was the basic face of survival in those years. Others show worry, fear, or sadness. A few have faces of defiance. Most knew that they would be dead soon. When someone was accused of being a ‘traitor’, Khmer Rouge justice didn’t stop with the accused. His wife and children often ended up here too.

The most disturbing group of photos, is the whole section of photos of children. Boys, girls, there are children of all ages, even toddlers. Some of them have the serious faces of children who have seen too much. Others look at the camera with that pure, adorable look of innocence that all children have. One mother poses for her mugshot holding her baby. 

None of them survived. They were all killed. 

A morbid room has a series of skulls on display. These skulls have tell tale fractures, or bullet holes. A caption beneath one reads like a line from one of those strangely popular American TV shows about forensic police investigators. But this isn't TV, this is reality. The caption reads:

4. Cranium of a man, 20 – 40 years old.
Gunshot wound of right superior parietal convexity (top of the head) with the bullet passing downward into the skull through the brain and exit to the left of the foramen magnum (base of the neck where the spinal cord emerges from brain). [Catalogue No. TSL15, 2A50695].

The faces of innocent children that were executed by the Khmer Rouge
I leave this moving display, and return to the old school yard. It's now a fenced-in prison compound. There used to be several layers of fencing, now there are only two. It's topped by several layers of barbed wire, which kept desperate prisoners from escaping.

During school days children played here, and in the yard is a tall frame of what may have been a swing set. Below it are 2 very large ceramic jars, like those used for storing water. A sign explains how these were used for their evil means.

This pole with cables attached to it had been used for the student to conduct their exercise. The Khmer Rouge utilized this place as interrogation room. The interrogators tied both hands of the prisoners to the back by a rope and lift the prisoners upside down. They did like this until the prisoners lost consciousness. Then they dipped the prisoner’s head into a jar of smelly, filthy water, which they normally used as fertilizer for the crops in the terrace outside. By doing so, the victims quickly regain consciousness, and that the interrogators could continue their interrogation.

By their last year in power, the Khmer Rouge had turned against its own members in a cannibalistic manner. The paranoid regime began to arrest, torture and execute many cadres and soldiers in its own ranks. These even included some of the torturers and guards who worked here. Many of them became victims of this very place. Some of the S-21 torturers, were tortured here in S-21, in the same rooms where they had tortured others. Is that justice?
Gallows used to torture inmates during questioning

Although the interrogators/torturers were men, the survivors say that there was once a female interrogator. They say that she had left S-21, after she went insane. 

But some of the other torturers survived. S-21 was also only one of many prisons and torture centers across Cambodia, so many torturers fled and survived the war. None of them have ever been arrested or tried for their crimes.

Only one key figure has been brought to justice so far. The warden of this prison, known as Duch, has been put on trial for crimes against humanity. I will soon attend his trial.

S-21 is now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Like the Nazi death camps, this horrible place is being preserved to teach future generations about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

A young visiting British backpacker expressed his dismay as he left this museum. “My parents didn’t even tell me about this,” I heard him say, still shocked. “They probably didn’t even know about it.”
Former school building housed condemned prisoners from 1975 - 1978

But I'll never forget it. Leaving Tuol Sleng, I step back out into Phnom Penh, leaving the genocide behind. 

Or do I? As I see adult Cambodians going about their daily affairs, I’m reminded that every single person old enough to remember the Khmer Rouge years, has been left traumatized. They personally witnessed the genocide that I've just learned about. They survived, but they all lost friends and family. 

On the opposite end, some of the men here in this city, are former Khmer Rouge soldiers themselves. They took part in the killings and other genocidal atrocities, and they still walk free. 

It really makes me wonder, how many ex-Khmer Rouge have driven me around this city? How many of them have I met in shops, or greeted on the street?

Never mind. I really don't want to know.

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