A Sad Interlude

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February 10th 2012
Published: March 8th 2012
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Looking out from the first building across the courtyard, with buildings two and three on the left.
We made the walk to Tuol Sleng in the southern part of Phnom Penh. It blended right in with all the concrete buildings that surrounded it. As we neared we became aware that less than 30 years earlier, we would have heard the screams from where we were standing.

We walked through the gates of the double-walled barbed wire perimeter which opened to the compound. The sun was shining and the grass in the courtyard was green, and something felt very wrong about that. The sun should never shine on a place where such atrocities took place. It should be cloudy, raining, and the earth should be barren. There should be nothing to encourage joy in a place like this.


People celebrated in Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 when the Khmer Rouge forces rode into town and paraded through the streets. The civil war was over, which meant that the fighting would stop. It didn’t take long for those same civilians to realize that not all was as it seemed. The following day, all citizens, which, as refugees had been fleeing from the fighting in the countryside to the capital meant more than two million people,

Translated for our benefit.
were forced to leave Phnom Penh for work camps in the countryside. They were given three days to be out of the city. All other urban centres in Cambodia were similarly evacuated. The communist Khmer Rouge government wanted the country to be completely self-reliant, and free from the influence and dependence of other countries. That meant that all citizens had to take to the fields to produce enough food to feed everyone in the country.

As the Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate all foreign influence and all dissention towards their ideology, they were constantly on the lookout and increasingly paranoid of infiltrators. They converted Tuol Sleng, in the now completely deserted Phnom Penh, from a high school into a prison, codenamed S-21. The existence of the prison was kept completely secret. The only people aware of its existence were the workers and the five upper-level ‘Brothers’ of the Khmer Rouge. The purpose of the prison was to extract information from the traitors.


The prison consisted of four three-storey buildings forming a U-shape with a courtyard in the middle. We entered the first room on the first floor of the first building. Apparently this is where important,
Private CellPrivate CellPrivate Cell

This is what the highest ranking prisoners at S-21 were provided with.
high-ranking prisoners were kept. They had the luxury of having their own room. Alone at one end of the room stood a cot with metal slats and no mattress. On the floor next to it stood a leg shackle to attach the prisoner to the bed, and a metal box for use as a toilet. There was a musty smell in the air. When the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, they found seven survivors and fourteen dead bodies in the prison and no one else. As we passed from room to room to room on the first floor of that building we were faced with the photos taken on that day. Photos of prisoners, still shackled to their cots, blood pooled on the floor below them, removed of both their lives and their dignity.


Anyone could be a traitor. More importantly, traitors formed and worked within networks that could connect the lowliest peasants to the highest ranking Khmer Rouge officials. These networks had to be eliminated to protect the communist ideology in the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, as Cambodia was known at the time. Perceived traitors were rounded up by the dozens and brought to S-21.
Brick CellsBrick CellsBrick Cells

Fairly constrictive.
The guards and interrogators were not given information explaining why each prisoner had been arrested. All that they knew was that the prisoner was guilty. If the prisoner was innocent, he/she would not have been arrested. Uncovering the reasons for the prisoner’s arrest and the members of their network was of the utmost importance and had to be obtained by any means necessary.


We moved to the next building. It’s lower floors were reserved for the prisoners of importance that didn’t warrant a private room in the first building. It’s upper floor was a communal cell that housed more than 40 people at any one time, all shackled in rows to one of three bars – two that ran the length of the room and one that ran the width. All day they would lie on the floor next to one another, unable to move or stand up unless they were being taken for interrogation or permitted to go to the bathroom. The more privileged prisoners on the floors below were allowed to have solo cells. A classroom-sized area was divided, by bricks on the first floor and wood on the second, into 11 cells. Each cell measured, being generous in estimation, seven feet long by three feet wide. The entrance to each of the brick cells was so narrow that one had to turn their shoulders sideways to get in.


The prisoners arrived at S-21 blindfolded and shackled in the back of a truck. They were kicked out of the truck, falling 2-3 feet to the pavement. They were taken inside, photographed, and then taken to a cell. A prisoner’s stay at S-21 could last anywhere from a few days to several months. They stayed as long as it took to extract a suitable confession. Once they had told a story that pleased the higher ranking officers, there was no longer reason to keep them at the prison.


The next building was set up more like a museum, although the absence of cells and shackles hardly made it easier to take in. In the rooms that stretched out in front of us, all of the mug shots taken of the prisoners on entry to S-21 were posted in grid-formation. Billboard after billboard, face after face after face of people whose last moment of freedom was the moment before they were

Row after row of mug shots taken on arrival.
collected and brought to this dungeon. Every one of them likely knew the moment they crossed that double-wall separating the outside world from S-21 that they would die, and they did. Something more than sadness comes to you staring at those faces, living faces, knowing the torture that they faced and the end that they met. Some looked scared, some looked defiant, some resilient, some confused. It didn’t matter though. Their fate was sealed when they crossed the threshold of the prison, regardless of the attitude they kept.


The guards didn’t know what information they were trying to extract, and the prisoners didn’t know what information they were supposed to provide. Interrogation would continue, however, until the story was right. The prisoner would be forced to write an autobiography, telling their life story including all the acts of treason they had committed and listing all of their known treasonous associates. Treasonous acts could include taking too much food, stealing food from the fields, sabotaging crops or equipment, speaking or thinking ill thoughts towards or simply doubting the Regime, or conspiring with the enemy. Early on in the Khmer Rouge rule, the prisoners would be accused of conspiring
For Your ProtectionFor Your ProtectionFor Your Protection

The walkways were sealed with barbed wire so that the prisoners could not attempt to jump from the balconies while being transported around the complex in an attempt to kill themselves.
with the KGB and/or the CIA. Later on, when the enemy had changed, the prisoners would be accused of working with the Vietnamese. The prisoners would write autobiographical confessions that sometimes numbered hundreds of pages. They would include the most mundane of acts that could be considered treasonous, and fabricate other treasonous stories. They would list all of their known associated regardless of their innocence or guilt. They would put anything on paper to make the interrogations stop.


Although record-keeping at S-21 was thorough, the details of their interrogation techniques were vague. Stories of the brutality that took place in the prison survived with the seven prisoners still alive on the day the Vietnamese entered Phnom Penh. The final building we entered displayed, in addition to even more of the seemingly never-ending prisoner mug shots staring back from the dead, pictorial accounts of the torturous interrogation techniques used in the prison and the tools used to implement them. We saw hand and leg shackles, electrical cables, pliers, wooden clubs, whips. These were not instruments obtained for the purpose of the display, but the tools that were found the day the prison was liberated, the same ones used
The Killing FieldsThe Killing FieldsThe Killing Fields

The depressions in the grounds are mass graves that have been unearthed.
to inflict physical and psychological harm and sometimes death on prisoners that were often completely unaware of why they had been brought to S-21. Often times the imagination is capable of conjuring harsher versions of reality than in fact existed. The paintings on the walls in that room produced by the surviving prisoners forced me to turn my head, something my imagination has never proven capable of doing. Four guards standing over a prisoner, lying face-down in a pool of blood with his hands tied behind his back, with clubs raised over their heads. A prisoner tied to a chair, the interrogator pulling off a fingernail with a pair of pliers, blood spurting everywhere. A prisoner head-first in a water-filled barrel, hands shackled to the bottom. Another painting of a prisoner being water-boarded. These creations felt more real than anything else we had seen up to that point.


If the prisoners survived their interrogation and provided a confession deemed suitable, they were considered to have served their purpose at the prison. When the sun went down, they would be taken from their cell, blindfolded, handcuffed and loaded onto a truck. They were driven to Choeung Ek, 15
Murder WeaponMurder WeaponMurder Weapon

In order to save bullets, even plants were employed as tools to slit throats.
kilometers south of Phnom Penh. Unloaded from the truck, they were then led to a pit. They were lined up, ordered to their knees, and then executed. The Khmer Rouge army was not wealthy. Having no currency, they traded rice to China for weapons and munitions. Bullets were costly and not to be wasted. Other techniques had to be used to kill all of the prisoners requiring termination. Sometimes prisoners were clubbed in the back of the neck, sometimes the front of their skull was pierced with a knife or other sharp object. Razor-sharp leaves of nearby plants were used to slit throats. The bodies would fall forward into the pit where they would be covered with DDT and dirt. A workday for the soldiers at the killing fields would consist of executing the people that arrived that day and digging a pit for those who would arrive the next day.


We left the final building at S-21, made our way across the courtyard and exited the gates.. something almost no one got to do while the prison was functional. We took a tuk-tuk out of the city to the Choeung Ek killing fields to witness where

Pieces of clothing like this one often find their way to surface-level.
many of the prisoners ended up. We were toured around the expansive fields by an impressive audio guide, narrated by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Because of the poverty that existed in the wake of the Khmer Rouge, all of the buildings that sat on the grounds of Choeunk Ek were dismantled by survivors of the regime returning to their villages in order to obtain wood and other building materials. Thus, we were only able to stand and wonder, aided by our audio guide, at what the holding area, used in the event that all of the prisoners delivered could not be killed in one night and had to be housed until the next day, might have looked like. We had to build in our mind a picture of what the weapons shed looked like, which housed the hoes, knives, clubs and other tools used for execution as well as the DDT that was poured over the bodies to mask the smell and to expedite the prisoners’ death in the event that the blunt force trauma failed to do its job.

We continued on the path across the barrier to the actual killing fields. Perhaps owing to
Choeung Ek Memorial StupaChoeung Ek Memorial StupaChoeung Ek Memorial Stupa

Housing the skeletal remains of over 8,000 people.
a sensitization resulting from the thoughts and evidence of death that had been surrounding us for the entire day thus far, the sight of pit after pit in the ground was not overly shocking. What was most astounding was learning the number of bodies recovered from them. In pits no larger than 15 feet long by 10 feet wide, anywhere from 80 to 160 people were buried unceremoniously. We passed one grave where 166 Khmer Rouge soldiers (far from immune to the wrath and paranoia of the regime) were unearthed, each and every one missing their head. We passed a mass grave that contained only women and children. Next to it was a ‘killing tree’ which toddlers’ and babies’ heads were smashed into, being swung by their ankles, before being disposed of into the pits.


As prisoners confessed and named all the names they could, the network of treasonous people grew. From that growing list, more were arrested and brought to S-21. And the cycle continued. It is believed that more than 14,000 prisoners were brought to the prison between 1975 and 1979. When the Vietnamese arrived in Phnom Penh on January 8, 1979 and discovered S-21,

Some of the skeletal remains residing in the Memorial Stupa.
seven prisoners were alive. Fourteen were dead. The rest of the prison was empty. Fourteen thousand people incarcerated in 4 years, only seven ever saw freedom again.


More than 8,000 bodies have been unearthed from the mass graves since 1979, while over 10,000 more remain buried. Heavy rains and flooding that come with the wet season in Cambodia often unearth bones, pieces of clothing, or scarves used to blindfold prisoners prior to execution. Seeing these fragments of the past reminded us very quickly that these were human beings, each with a history, with a family, that were brought here to be dumped in the ground. As we completed the walk through the killing fields we came to face the Memorial Stupa (or shrine). A Buddhist philosophy states that an individual needs to be provided with proper funeral rites in order for their spirit to pass peacefully to the afterlife. The Memorial Stupa was built to provide an appropriate resting place for the people that lost their lives at Choeung Ek and to serve as a reminder of the dangers that can arise when evil goes unchecked. Inside the Stupa are 17 levels. Distributed amongst those levels are
Rising HighRising HighRising High

Seventeen levels of bones rising towards the sky.
the skeletal remains of the bodies recovered from the killing fields. We entered the Stupa and stood face to face with hundreds of skulls. One level, and then another level, and then another. All containing skulls.

Walking away from the Stupa, we stopped and looked back, reflecting on what we had seen and learned that day. So many lives were ended because of paranoia and unfaltering ideology in people with far too much power. Estimates are that two million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge regime. One in every four people, dead. Even sadder than learning about these people and their stories was realizing that this same type of genocide continues to occur throughout the world and people give little thought to it and governments make little effort to stop it. You want to feel like the two million people that died in Cambodia gave their lives for something, but standing back at the piles of skulls rising up to the sky we couldn’t help but feel like no one is listening to the lessons they are trying to teach us.


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