During the Vietnam War, Cambodia was used as a base by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, and thousands of refugees from across the country flooded Phnom Penh to escape the fighting between their own government troops, the NVA/NLF, the South Vietnamese and its allies, and the Khmer Rouge. By 1975, the population was 3 million, the bulk of whom were refugees from the fighting. The city fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. All of its residents, including those who were wealthy and educated, were evacuated from the city and forced to do labor on rural farms as so-called “new people.”
In the heart of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s forces and was turned into the S-21 prison camp, where people were detained and tortured. Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and therefore killed many people perceived as educated, “lazy” or simply as political enemies. Many others starved to death as a result of failure of the agrarian society and the sale of Cambodia’s rice to China in exchange for bullets and weaponry.
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.
The day in the prison began at 4:30 a.m. when prisoners were ordered to strip for inspection. The guards checked to see if the shackles were loose or if the prisoners had hidden objects they could use to commit suicide. Over the years, several prisoners managed to kill themselves, so the guards were very careful in checking the shackles and cells. The prisoners received four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day. Drinking water without asking the guards for permission resulted in serious beatings. The inmates were hosed down every four days.
The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison’s guards. They were sometimes forced to eat human feces and drink human urine. The unhygienic living conditions in the prison caused skin diseases, lice, rashes, ringworm and other diseases. The prison’s medical staff was untrained and offered treatment only to sustain prisoners’ lives after they had been injured during interrogation. When prisoners were taken from one place to another for interrogation, their faces were covered. Guards and prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other. Moreover, within the prison, people who were in different groups were not allowed to have contact with one another.
Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months. However, several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer. Within two or three days after they were brought to S-21, all prisoners were taken for interrogation. The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shock, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags.
Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of waterboarding. Females were sometimes raped by the interrogators, even though sexual abuse was against Democratic Kampuchea (DK) policy. The perpetrators who were found out were executed. Although many prisoners died from this kind of abuse, killing them outright was discouraged, since the Khmer Rouge needed their confessions. The “Medical Unit” at Tuol Sleng, however, did kill at least 100 prisoners by bleeding them to death. Medical experiments were performed on certain prisoners. Inmates were sliced open and had organs removed with no anesthetic. Others were attached to intravenous pumps and every drop of blood was drained from their bodies to see how long they could survive. The most difficult prisoners were skinned alive.
In their confessions, the prisoners were asked to describe their personal background. If they were party members, they had to say when they joined the revolution and describe their work assignments in DK. Then the prisoners would relate their supposed treasonous activities in chronological order. The third section of the confession text described prisoners’ thwarted conspiracies and supposed treasonous conversations. At the end, the confessions would list a string of traitors who were the prisoners’ friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. Some lists contained over a hundred names. People whose names were in the confession list were often called in for interrogation.
Typical confessions ran into thousands of words in which the prisoner would interweave true events in their lives with imaginary accounts of their espionage activities for the CIA, the KGB, or Vietnam. Physical torture was combined with sleep deprivation and deliberate neglect of the prisoners. The torture implements are on display in the museum. It is believed that the vast majority of prisoners were innocent of the charges against them and that the torture produced false confessions.
For the first year of S-21’s existence, corpses were buried near the prison. However, by the end of 1976, cadres ran out of burial spaces, the prisoner and their family were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination center, fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh. There, they were killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons owing to the scarcity, and subsequent price of ammunition. After the prisoners were executed, the soldiers who had accompanied them from S-21 buried them in graves that held as few as 6 and as many as 100 bodies.
It is estimated that approximately 3 million Cambodians died in the genocide.
The former high school turned S-21 torture facility is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where Khmer Rouge torture devices and photos of their victims are displayed.
This is not a facebook anyone asked to join, but is is an important reminder of the horrors that humanity is capable of.