From the outside it could be just another high school. It could be your high school. Except that it is fenced in by a barbed wire, surrounded by a corrugated iron fence, and is what remains of Security Prison 21 during Pol Pot’s reign.(Note: In case you’re fuzzy on the history, I’ve summarized the context of how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power here).
In 1975, Tuol Svay Pray High School became S-21, the most secret of the almost two hundred interrogation and execution centers in Cambodia where anyone considered a threat or accused of leading the uprising against Pol Pot’s regime was detained.
The classrooms were turned into cells that worked as cages for the prisoners with an iron bed, blanket, cushion and mat, and a bucket for bodily waste. Some classrooms were divided into smaller brick cells; others were kept open for mass detention. A fishnet of barbed wire covered each building to prevent the desperate prisoners from jumping and committing suicide.The detainees were brought here, their photographs taken, their arrival elaborately documented, often without knowing the reasons for their arrest.
Once at S-21, they were tortured until they not only confessed to their nonexistent crimes, but also disclosed the names of family members and friends that were supposed accomplices.
Structures around the school were turned into interrogation machines; shackles, knives, whips and electroshock were used for torture.Many of the large cells were left as they were found in 1979, mostly empty with steel beds, some with pillows, some water cans, others chains and ankle bars.
Blown up photographs mirror the rooms they are hung in, a record of how each room was found so many years ago. In black and white, the disfigured corpses lie barely identifiable in pools of blood, but the bludgeoning is obvious. To see it is almost too much to bear; to stand in a room and know what the body looked like right there…is chilling.Another building is filled with small brick stalls where the prisoners were leashed. Row after row, room after room. In one, a green chalkboard still hangs, faded, and I’m transported: this used to be a high school. It used to be carefree.
There are scratches and numbers on the wall and I’m not sure what they mean but at that moment it is the saddest photograph I’ve ever taken, and I can’t hold back my tears anymore.The galleries are in the next building – mostly mug shots of the prisoners, some defiant, some resigned, most just wondering ‘Why?’ Interspersed between them, photographs of people, so many, just lying there, bloody, gauged, dead. And I can’t look anymore.
Why? Why do these things have to happen?
Prisoner records estimate that the Khmer Rouge killed about 20,000 people at S-21, many of them children. Out of everyone that entered, only seven are known to have survived. With a third of Cambodia’s population wiped out, Pol Pot’s regime was responsible for one of the largest genocides in history; ‘keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive‘ as the pamphlet urges, is crucial in preventing them from happening again.
I didn’t see the last building. I couldn’t. But what I learned I will definitely never forget.Continue on to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.
Back to the eventual end of Pol Pot’s reign.
Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum is on the corner of St. 113 and St. 350 in Phnom Penh city. Tickets $2.