horror of the 'Killing Fields'
the Khmer Rouge, the route to the killing fields was via an
interrogation centre. The most infamous was Phnom Penh's S-21
Prison and the Choeung Ek extermination centre. A visit provides
a stark picture of Cambodia's recent past.
Rouge Genocide Museum
Tuol Svay Pray High School, named after a Royal ancestor of
King Sihanouk, is located in an ordinary side road in Phnom
Penh. Inside the gates, it looks like any high school: five
buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars and bowling
1976, the Khmer Rouge took it over, renamed the school Security
Prison 21 (S-21) and turned it into a torture, interrogation
and execution centre.
The buildings were
enclosed by corrugated iron sheets covered in electrified
barbed wire, and the classrooms converted into tiny prison
cells for individual prisoners and larger mass cells.
All the windows
were secured with iron bars and covered with tangled barbed
wire to prevent escape. More cells were built to hold female
prisoners, and houses around the school buildings were converted
into rooms for administration, interrogation and torture.
1,720 workers controlled the prison. Most of the personnel
were boys and girls from peasant backgrounds ranging from
ten to nineteen years of age who were trained to work as guards
The prisoners included
Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Indian, Pakistani, British and
American nationals, but the majority were Cambodians. Civilian
prisoners were workers, farmers, engineers, technicians, intellectuals,
professors, students, politicians, and so on.
Whole families were
taken to S-21 to be interrogated, tortured to obtain a ‘confession’,
and then sent to the Choeung Ek extermination centre. The
average period of imprisonment was from two to four months
the 14,000 people known to have entered S-21, only seven survived.
Not only did the Khmer Rouge transcribe the prisoners' interrogations,
but also carefully photographed the vast majority of inmates.
Each of the almost
6,000 portraits that have been recovered tell the same stories:
shock, resignation, confusion, defiance and horror.
Although the most
gruesome images to come out of Cambodia were those of the
mass graves, the most haunting were the portraits taken by
the Khmer Rouge at S-21.
Today, S-21 Prison
is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide: the name means
‘poison hill’, an apt description. The ground-floor classrooms
in one building have been left as they were in 1977.
interrogation rooms are furnished with only a school desk
and chair facing a steel bed frame with shackles at each end.
On the far wall are photographs of the sights that confronted
the two Vietnamese photographers who discovered S-21 in January
1979: bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with
pools of wet blood underneath.
In another building,
the walls are covered with thousands of S-21 portraits. At
first glance, the photograph
of a shirtless young man appears typical of the prison photos.
Closer inspection reveals that the number tag on his chest
has been safety-pinned to his pectoral muscle.
With a bruised face
and a pad-locked chain around his neck, a boy stands with
his arms at his sides and looks straight into the camera.
A mother with her baby in her arms stares into the camera
with a look of indignant resignation.
and ‘confessions’ were collected in order to prove to the
Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out.
Fifteen kilometres from the centre of Phnom Penh is the Choeung
Ek extermination centre, the final destination of some 20,000
adults and children who had been imprisoned and interrogated
at S-21 Prison.
Well over a hundred
burial pits lie in what was once an orchard. About eighty
were exhumed – the total number of bodies was around 9,000.
Most had been battered
or hacked to death with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and
many other makeshift murder weapons.
were seldom used – ammunition was valuable. It is said that
small children and babies were swung against trees to smash
their heads before throwing their bodies into the pits.
It’s a bleak place.
Shallow depressions indicate the graves where bodies were
disinterred, some labelled with brief notices listing the
body count. Bone fragments are scattered around, and a large
monument contains the skulls of about 8,000 victims.
S-21 Prison was
one of a 167 prisons throughout Cambodia, and Choeung Ek was
but one of 343 'killing fields'. In all, 19,440 mass graves
have been identified.
S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek
Visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide is a harrowing
experience likely to distress anyone of a sensitive disposition.
The prosaic torture
tools - hammers, pincers, and electric cable, the photographs
of blank faces hoping for execution to escape their agony
seem almost unreal.
In contrast, the
killing fields seem peaceful, a pleasant stroll through a
shady orchard. However, when you realise that what appears
to be random litter is the clothes of the victim, and the
white slivers of plastic are actually shards of human bones,
the reality of children and teenagers executing helpless adults
and children combine to conjure up an image of hell.