A Terrible Truth: A Day At The Cambodian Genocide Museum And The Killing Fields.

Part One: The Genocide Museum (Or S-21)

The first full day that Marta and I were in Cambodia saw us travel to both the Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields. In the next two posts I will be posting largely factual articles, with a touch of my own personal thoughts. Please note – this post will contain some images and stories that some may find disturbing.

Cambodia’s recent history is not a happy one. Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, ruled the country with an iron fist. Initially starting as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army in 1968, the party took less than ten years to gain power in Cambodia. In their attempts to socially engineer a perfect agrarian (and self-sufficient) society, they committed one of the most brutal and terrifying genocides in recent history. It is estimated that between one and a half to three million people were killed as a result of the genocide, with up to a quarter of Cambodia’s total population dying as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s policies.

Tuol Sleng, meaning ‘Hill of the Poisonous Trees’ or Security Prison 21 (S-21) was one of  at least 150 prison camps used by the Khmer Rouge in their oppressive regime. It was formally a high school, but with the rise to power of Pol Pot, became one of the most notorious interrogation centres of the regime. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at S-21 (but the real number may never be known). Initially made up of prisoners from the previous Lon Nol regime, the prisoners included soldiers, doctors, academics, teachers, students and even factory workers. By 1978, the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge led to it repeatedly purging its own ranks – some high ranking officials arrested included Vorn Vet, the deputy prime minister for the economy and Hu Nim, a high ranking official and moderate socialist.

Life In The Prison

When they arrived at S-21, the prisoners were photographed and forced to give the guards an extensive autobiography, beginning with their birth/childhood and ending with their arrest. These were for the detailed records kept by the Khmer Rouge. After this, they would be forced to strip down to their underwear and had all of their possessions taken away and were taken to their cells. Prisoners in smaller cells would be shackled to the wall, while those in larger communal cells would be shackled together along an iron bar. The prisoners would be forced to face different directions, so no two heads were laid next to each other. They were expected to sleep and live with no mosquito nets, on mats on the floor and were forbidden to talk to each other in any way.

Just one face of the thousands imprisoned and tortured in S-21.
Just one face of the thousands imprisoned and tortured in S-21.

The day in the prison would begin at 4:30am, when the guards would force prisoners to strip and search the cells to ensure the shackles were tight and no objects were hidden with which prisoners could commit suicide. For food, the prisoners would receive four spoonfuls of rice porridge and a watery, leaf based soup twice a day. Drinking water without the express permission of the guards could result in beatings. Every four days or so, the inmates would be hosed down. S-21 was controlled with extremely strict regulations – failing to comply would result in serious beatings from the guards. Some of these included being forced to eat human feces or drink urine; communication between prisoners or prisoners and guards was expressly forbidden. The awful conditions often led to outbreaks of skin rashes and other diseases but the medical staff were untrained and only provided help to extend a prisoner’s life after torture and interrogation.  Important prisoners would be kept in small, individual cells, with the less important ones being kept in large, communal cells.

A row of small cells on the upper floors of S-21
A row of small cells on the upper floors of S-21.
Inside the cell of one survivor. Few ever made it out of S-21 after being arrested and taken there.
Inside the cell of one survivor. Only twelve people ever made it out of S-21 after being arrested and taken there.

Torture and Execution

The majority of prisoners would be held at S-21 for two to three months, with some higher ranked Khmer Rouge prisoners held for longer. Two or three days after their arrival at S-21, prisoners would be taken for interrogation. The torture system that evolved at S-21 was one of great cruelty, and evolved to make prisoners confess to whatever crime or misdeed they had been accused of. Methods of torture included – beatings, electric shocks, very hot metal instruments, hanging, having finger nails removed whilst alcohol was poured on the wounds and waterboarding.

Metal bed, where prisoners were shackled for interrogation.
Metal bed, where prisoners were shackled for interrogation.
The gallows, where prisoners would be hung as a form of torture.
The gallows, where prisoners would be hung as a form of torture.

In their confessions, prisoners were made to discuss their personal life and background, from birth until their arrest. If they were party members, they had to say when they joined the revolution and describe their work assignments for the Party. Following this, they would have to confess to each of their ‘supposed’ treacheries in chronological order. The third part of their confessions would contain details on thwarted conspiracies and plots.The final part of the confession would list names, often of the prisoners family, friends and work colleagues, who were also involved in the plot. These lists would often contain hundreds of names; the accused would then be brought in for interrogation themselves and the cycle would continue. It is widely believed that most of the crimes detailed in the confessions were fictitious and only obtained under extreme torture; few of the prisoners were actually guilty. Initially, bodies of the prisoners who were executed were buried near the site of S-21. But, in 1976, they ran out of space and prisoners and their families were transferred to Choeung Ek (more widely known as The Killing Fields).

But, that is a topic for my next post. I hope that you have learnt something from this, as I did when I went to the museum. The extent and extremity of the genocide was something I (and many other Westerners) are often unaware of.


2 thoughts on “A Terrible Truth: A Day At The Cambodian Genocide Museum And The Killing Fields.

  1. Well done blog on a tragic, appalling subject. Your photos (which are excellent!) have a high impact, especially because of the Black and White.

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