Today we saw the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21). According to reviews, this is one of the best museums in Cambodia when it comes to the Khmer Rouge genocide. We got an audio guide for the museum, which provided detailed descriptions and historical information, including (translated) interviews with survivors and torturers alike. Well worth the extra $3!
The prison itself was once a high school, but was repurposed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, when they eliminated all formal education from the country. They called it Security Centre 21, or S-21 for short. For three long years, it became a place of torture and bloodshed.
The tour began at building A. Building A was once used as classrooms, but under the Khmer Rouge it was transformed into a place used for torturing prisoners to get written confessions.
For some reason, which I still never fully understood, it was very important to the Khmer Rouge to get written confessions from all of their prisoners. These confessions were in the form of intricate conspiracies, detailing how the prisoners were secretly working with either the KGB or CIA, and often implicating family members and friends in the process. Ironically, many Cambodians had never even heard of these organizations that they were apparently working for, and the guards and officers knew they were all fake.
And yet, it was forbidden by Comrade Duch – who ran S-21 – for prisoners to die before they could make a proper confession. Guards who lost control and accidentally killed prisoners were often punished or imprisoned themselves.
Once these confessions were obtained, the prisoners were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek and executed. The killing fields are mass graves located just outside of what is now Phnom Penh, and can also be visited. Because bullets were expensive and loud, prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were killed by brute force, their throats slit to make sure they were dead. Because of this secrecy, many of these grave sites were unknown until well after the regime was over.
Prisoners were shackled to these iron beds and tortured, sometimes multiple times per day, until they confessed their supposed crimes against the regime.
When the Vietnamese army came to liberate the prison in 1979, building A contained fourteen prisoners who were still shackled to these beds. They had all been hastily executed before the Khmer Rouge fled to the jungle and mountains.
Photographs were taken at the scene to document what the Vietnamese discovered; these blurry photographs depicting prisoners bludgeoned to death still hang in the rooms today.
Further along the museum were buildings B and C. These buildings housed many more prisoners in closer quarters. Prisoners were shackled together by the feet, and forced to lie down in a row on the floor. They had to ask permission from their guards to so much as sit up; if they moved, talked, or rattled their chains, they were beaten for making noise.
We heard a story from one of the few survivors, where it was discovered he was able to fix sewing machines and typewriters. After weeks of confinement and torture, he was moved to his own cell. There he was shackled to the floor in a cell smaller than a bed. During the day, he would make repairs for the Khmer Rouge and be fed nothing but watery gruel. According to him, many of the prisoners caught and ate insects and geckos to survive, in secrecy of course; eating insects was also punished by beatings.
Some prisoners got their own cells, which were cramped, crude chambers enclosed by brick walls. Because nobody at S-21 knew how to properly construct a wall, they’ve already begun falling down- that’s why you see the metal scaffolding around the walls.
The Khmer Rouge believed in working hard rather than smart – they thought that, if you tried hard enough, you could do anything. They didn’t believe in education or training. In a way, these walls are proof of how well that philosophy worked out for them.
Many of the rooms were filled with display boards covered in hundreds of photographs. The Khmer Rouge photographed each prisoner when they arrived and kept a file for each prisoner. After the war, Cambodians had no idea what had happened to friends and family members. Many visited S-21 and searched through thousands of photographs looking for loved ones, trying to get closure on their disappearance.
The photos below are all of Khmer Rouge cadres who ran S-21 – their own people were also well documented. They are identified by their uniforms: black shirts buttoned all the way up. These cadres are female; they sport the signature short hair cut that all Khmer Rouge women wore.
Another poignant story we heard from the audioguide was that of Kerry Hamill, a man from New Zealand who was captured by the Khmer Rouge while sailing around the world with two friends. A storm forced his boat into Cambodian waters, where he stayed, unaware of the terrible things going on there. His boat was shot at, and one of his companions killed. He was taken ashore by the Khmer Rouge, and imprisoned at S-21 with his other friend, John.
His confession files were found after the war, and the audio guide had a recording of his brother testifying at the trial of Comrade Duch. In spite of his circumstance, he remained lucid and preserved his sense of humour. In his confession letter, Kerry implicated Colonel Sanders, Major Ruse, and a Mr. S. Tarr. Many of us know Colonel Sanders from his tasty fried chicken, and ruse is a word that means trickery. The last, Mr. S. Tarr, was a reference to his mother, Esther.
Tragically, he was murdered 2 months after being imprisoned. However, his story is a true testament to the human spirit – hopeful and strong, against all odds.
If you’re interested, a complete transcript of Kerry’s brother’s testimony can be found here. It’s a bit long but very powerful, if hard to read at times.
The S-21 genocide museum was a very powerful place, and conveyed a sombre seriousness that such atrocities and crimes warrant. The details and stories provided by the audioguide and the exhibits throughout were so informative, and really helped us understand what went on in this prison and in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
Unfortunately, this sombre mood was somewhat broken right at the end of our visit, as we sat on a bench and listened to the last few stories on our audioguide. Sitting there, listening to a woman recount her struggles with PTSD years after the Khmer Rouge regime, three laughing children entered the courtyard we were in and started playing with a ball and bouncing on an inflatable toy. We were both rather taken aback by this jarring discord between past and present events here, as their rubber ball bounced into the grave site.
Just as we had come to grips with that, a group of three middle aged Cambodians strolled past us chatting happily. It wasn’t until the second time they went by that we realized they were just doing laps around the courtyard for exercise – treating this former prison, where thousands of innocent people were tortured and executed, like any old community track.
These final experiences gave us the sense that people don’t all fully appreciate and respect the gravity of what happened only 40 years ago. A memorial site is not a playground or a place for a nice stroll, but a space for remembrance and respect. This behaviour may be some sort of cultural divide, but it felt very out of place.
Overall, the museum was a solemn experience that taught us all about the terrible Khmer Rouge years. Seeing the rooms with the iron beds and shackles still on them, walking through prison cells, and hearing stories of survivors was a visceral experience. History became personal when we walked along pictures of hundreds of victims, every one of which has a vivid and moving story.
Even though there were parts that were hard to hear, listening and learning about atrocities like this is so important; those who do not learn about the past are doomed to repeat it.