The silence of S-21: Tuol Sleng

Having met Miss Marsh and her female friend “The G’ster” in Phnom Penh, it was with much foreboding that I suggested we spend a traditional Christmas Eve by way of visiting a genocide museum.

Given that both the 0.5 and Miss Marsh have a grasp of history can be described as “sketchy” at best (several years ago they both became the proud owners of a children’s “world history” book, though I suspect they both remain unread), I was steeled for a barrage of questions.

horrific story behind Toul Sleng

The G'ster listens to our guide explain the horrific story behind Toul Sleng

Before our arrival in Cambodia, I was fearful that any Khmer Rouge references might be taken by the pair of them as discussion about a new shade of Bobbi Brown make-up.

I was therefore most pleased when the 0.5 swotted up on the journey from Koh Kong, displaying a genuine interest in understanding more about the complex and violent near-past of this country.

OK, the school bell is ringing, time for a crib-note history lesson.

After several decades as a French protectorate, the end of the World War II drew Cambodia towards full independence in 1953.

The blood-stained floor tiles of the former S-21 Prison

The blood-stained floor tiles of the former S-21 Prison

In the context of the Cold War and the turmoil shaping in neighbouring Vietnam, successive governments of Cambodia shifted towards sympathising with communist North Vietnam, breaking off diplomatic relations with the US sponsored South Vietnamese by the mid 1960’s.

US Bombings of border territory aimed at destroying communist Vietnamese bases and supply lines had the effect of forcing the Vietnamese deeper into Cambodian territory, alienating provincial Khmer farmers and with an ironic twist of fate, facilitating the rise of the insurgent Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) or “Khmer Rouge” as they had been dubbed.

By early 1975, the military rise of the Khmer Rouge was complete and as the US withdrew from Vietnam, so too did Phnom Penh fall to the CPK.

An S-21 interrogation room

An S-21 interrogation room. A desk, an iron bed, and a metal rod for beating prisoners

Despite tales of wholesale slaughter during their advance, the Khmer Rouge were initially greeted by the residents and refugees of the city, tired as they were with civil war and broken promises by the former government.

Their joy was to be short-lived.

Within a week, the capital was a ghost town as the Khmer Rouge immediately set out to achieve their ideal of an agrarian society and peasant nation where family, wealth or status were rendered irrelevant.

Abolishing money as a means of exchange whilst breaking up family groups and all contrary forms of networks, in cities and towns across the country, the population was displaced and deployed as forced labour.

The logic is still shrouded in uncertainty, but suffice to say with almost immediate effect, a programme of mass execution began to take place with the military, government officials, the educated and intellectual, societal elites and Buddhist monks being particularly in jeopardy.

Buddhist Monks, Toul Sleng

A trio of Buddhist monks contemplate the atrocities of Toul Sleng.

Here at Tuol Sleng, inside a former school compound, the Khmer Rouge established a notorious interrogation centre and torture prison known as S-21.

Our group of four decided to hire a guide for $8.

It was to prove a sound decision; the middle-aged lady allocated to us brought a passion and understanding born of first hand experience of the crimes that would otherwise have passed us by.

As a 12-year-old girl, she had been separated from her family (some of whom had already been killed) and was forced to work in a distant province.

Suffering from frequent beatings as well as being on starvation rations, the scars on her legs and her slight limp bore testament to her treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

In a soft, considered voice and with broken but understandable English, she began to describe the horrors that took place inside these grounds.

We firstly enter the detention block, where the still blood-stained floor tells much about how information was extracted from supposed opponents of the regime.

In one room a metal bed forms the centrepiece. Upon this a prisoner would be strapped for weeks on end whilst he underwent interrogation. The victim would be routinely beaten or tortured to secure information.

S-21, Toul Sleng, Khmer Rouge torture chamber

A "Piss Pot" used to test alertness and a pick for inflicting severe beatings on prisoners

The images of torture were harrowing in the extreme.

A body strapped face down to the iron bed with its head forcibly turned through 180 degrees.

What remained of his facial features staring upwards to the ceiling, the being almost ceased to be human but took on an alien appearance.

In these rooms, stomachs were cut open, limbs broken and twisted, acid burns inflicted, actions so horrendous that it becomes difficult to imagine what drives one human to inflict such cruelty upon another.

But these things happened, they happened where we stood and they happened within my lifetime.

As we listened, so we absorbed.

shocked faces at S21 Toul Sleng

The faces of Miss Marsh and The 0.5 speak volumes about their emotions at that time

Each of our faces by now unable to hide how much we were genuinely sickened and horrified, we had been stunned into an uncharacteristic and contemplative silence.

I can’t recall ever before identifying with the idea of feeling sick in the pit of the stomach, but I now understood the phrase.

More methods of cruelty followed. A small metal box and a plastic bottle into which already severely beaten detainees were then directed to “Piss in this pot, shit in that pot.”

If their incoherence led them to misunderstand the instruction they would be punished further for their indecency sometimes being made to drink pure alcohol or acid.

Outside in the yard, a scaffold like structure previously used for gymnastic exercise had been modified to enable the guards to hoist their victim skywards by their feet before plunging them headfirst into a barrel of water either to resuscitate or terrify depending upon the need of the moment.

Khmer Rouge victim, S-21pinned number

#152. The Khmer Rouge catalogued each of their inmates at S-21. Here, a young victim of the genocide wears his number pinned through the skin of his throat

Other buildings, still wrapped in the original barbed wire that prevented prisoners from undertaking an act of suicidal defenestration, contained further images of the victims.

Men, women, and children were each numbered by their captives and then photographed.  Some images showed sobbing children with their number tags attached through the skin with a large safety-pin.

Later these children would become a mere statistic amongst the 17,000 who passed through the S-21 gates on their way to “The Killing Fields” where they were put to death.

The exact number of citizens killed during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror is still a topic for debate. Conservative estimates suggest a death toll of around 2 million.

This figure equates to a quarter of the entire population of the time.

Bou Meng S-21

Bou Meng then and now. The artist is one of only a few survivors of S-21.

The scale of the atrocities is difficult to grasp, though upon meeting Bou Meng, one of the handful of survivors of S-21 (a talented artist and former Khmer Rouge member, he was arrested on suspicion of working with the CIA but was kept alive and engaged upon a portrait of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader when the regime fell) one is left in no doubt as to its authenticity.

Beaten twice daily by his captors, Bou Meng became deaf and partially blind.  Sadly, his wife was one of the millions murdered by the regime.

All he has to remember her by is a dog-eared, passport sized photograph.

They say that time is a great healer, but I doubt whether time nor any other cure could heal his psychological scars.

Some things can never be forgotten.

However, what happened at S-21 must never be forgotten.


About misterkelvin

I searched, I failed. And then I accidentally found one in Ubud.
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One Response to The silence of S-21: Tuol Sleng

  1. Pingback: S-21 atrocities (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) « a backpack, a buggy, a baby…

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