Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tuol Sleng High School sits on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and when the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the city in 1975, the school was enclosed with electrified barbed wire, its classrooms were converted into tiny prison cells and torture chambers, and all its windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent any escape. Tuol Sleng was renamed Security Prison 21, or S-21 and between 1975 and 1979, it was one of at least 150 execution centers throughout Cambodia. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and anyone he believed to be a detractor was interrogated, tortured and killed – Soldiers, government officials, academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, ect. – anyone he believed would undermine his plan. The party leadership’s paranoia eventually even turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, starting with their childhood and ending with their arrest. They were then forced to strip to their underwear and had their all their possessions confiscated before they were taken to their cells; Some to smaller cells where they were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor and others were held in the large mass cells where they were collectively shackled. Their shackles were fixed to alternating iron bars so prisoners could sleep with their heads in opposite directions. All slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets and were forbidden to talk to each other.
Every day, prisoners were ordered to strip for inspection at 4:30 a.m. so the guards could check to see if the shackles were loose or if they had hidden objects they could use to commit suicide The prisoners received four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day and drinking water without asking the guards for permission resulted in serious beatings.
Most prisoners at S-21 were held for two to three months, routinely being subjected to interrogation and torture. The system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. [False] Confessions were needed so immediate outright killing of prisoners was discouraged, but by the end of 1976, guards and administrators ran out of burial spaces near the prison. Prisoners were then trucked to the Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) extermination center, 15 kilometers south of Phnom Penh.
At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners and as many as 17,000-20,000 passed through S-21’s administration before being brutally murdered. There were only twelve known survivors, mainly because they had skills their captors judged to be useful. The prison’s chief was Khang Khek Ieu (also known as Comrade Duch) and eventually he was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the crimes of the regime. He was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture for his role and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. His sentence was extended to life imprisonment in 2012 by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
The buildings at Tuol Sleng are now preserved as they were when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The site’s four main buildings are simply known as Building A, B, C, and D.
- Building A holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims were discovered.
- The regime kept extensive records, including thousands of photographs. Building B holds galleries of hundreds of black and white photographs of some of the victims.
- Building C holds the rooms that were sub-divided into small cells for prisoners.
- Building D holds other memorabilia including instruments of torture.