A couple of disclaimers about this article… Like our trip to the killing fields the day before, we saw or heard some disturbing things and we won’t be omitting much. Also, we aren’t historians and we only took basic notes, so while we’ll try to run through some basic fact-checking I’m sure we’ll make some mistakes; this isn’t for lack of respect but lack of expert-level knowledge.
11 o’clock rolls around and we begin to crawl out of bed. Damn, we’re feeling pretty rough from the evening before. I try to screw my head back on my shoulders by jumping in the shower and just trying to get my bearings. From the stall next door I hear bellowing into the porcelain followed by expectoration. Drisdelle’s particularly sub-par it seems.
Our plan for today (after a quick scarf of breakfast) is to get to the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 compound, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. At the time the KR took power it was a high school in the middle of Phnom Penh; they retooled it to be a detention, interrogation and torture center. It’s probably the most well known and iconic but it was just one of a constellation of similar centers around the country, almost nothing of which was known about to the outside world until the Vietnamese liberated the area in 1979. I was convinced we had to visit it after seeing a still of it on a wall of local attractions and immediately recognizing it from one of the most haunting sequences of the film Baraka – if you’ve seen it, some of the images below, especially from Buildings B and C, will likely resonate with you as well.
It was a short tuk-tuk ride to the compound which from the outside still did look like a 1960’s or 1970’s era high school, at least if you didn’t immediately notice the two layers of razor wire rimming its perimeter. We picked up some audio guides and walked inside, where there were a series of unmarked white graves honouring the last dozen or so people to have died there – the Vietnamese found them left behind but burnt beyond the point of being identifiable. A memorial was in the center of the yard with four main buildings around the edges of the compound, named Buildings A, B, C and D. Following the audio guide’s lead we started with Building A.
(Most of the rooms disallowed any pictures, which we respected. This is probably for the best as it was all extremely disturbing imagery. Especially the first few rooms which had the wire-frame beds, clamps and ammunition boxes in them as well as a picture of the victim as it was found when the complex was discovered.)
In front of Building A were a set of rules that detainees had to abide by. It was difficult to get a good shot with the foot traffic in the way, but here they are. The unusual language may sound like the result of poor translation but according to the audio guide it was because of the KR’s “revolutionary language”:
Along the ground floor of Building A were ten interrogation rooms. Each held the steel frame of a bed, iron leg shackles and a rusty ammo box for “human waste”. The top windows, originally open, had been boarded up to make the rooms hotter and more intolerable (since being turned into a museum, ceiling fans were added). A few of the bed frames had mats on the bed that were soiled. Each of the rooms had a large, low-resolution picture of the immolated corpse that was found in that room when the Vietnamese arrived.
In the upper floors of Building A was a special exhibit on the abuse of women by the KR regime. Women were forced to marry party cadres and soldiers in mass weddings of fifty or more couples at a time; one picture showed a glowing man and an obviously distraught woman being wed under the banner of the hammer and sickle. Those who resisted or refused were raped by the “husband” or by a group of men. There were dozens of stories from individual women describing these kinds of experiences but it was clear the vast majority wouldn’t discuss it.
Between Buildings A and B was wooden exercise equipment from when the compound had been a school, but which had been dubbed “the gallows” when reconfigured to be S-21. Detainees were strung up by their arms – twisted behind their back – then revived by lowering them and submerging their heads into large pots filled with wastewater and human excrement.
Here’s a picture of the gallows, you can see the 12 white graves of the victims discovered here chained to the beds when Tuol Sleng was first discovered just passed it.
The first room of Building B was a photo exhibit of members of the KR and those responsible for what happened at S-21 and the killing fields. This room was occupied by not one but two tour groups when I tried to squeeze in; as a result I didn’t really bother to look at much, and couldn’t really care that much about the perpetrators regardless.
The remainder of Building B consisted of photos and stories of the victims, in some cases before they arrived at S-21 (one married couple, both doctors, who were both detained and killed had their graduation photos), for others when they were being processed (all detainees had mugshots taken), and for others after they’d died of the torture inflicted upon them. In the last case, fatalities were documented because the torturers weren’t supposed to kill their captives, doing so was a punishable offence and some of the torturers became detainees themselves after making these mistakes.
While the torture photos were unquestionably disturbing, personally I found the rows of mugshots threw me off more than I expected, even though I’d seen them before in Baraka and elsewhere. Besides the sheer volume of images – each of which is, of course, a person who was tortured and murdered – it’s impossible not to notice the number of very young people staring into the camera with a hopeless look in their eyes. Two that really stood out for me were a boy who looked about thirteen and a girl who looked about 16. I didn’t feel 100% coming out of this section.
There was an interesting story on the audio of a New Zealander named Kerry Hamill that had been captured by the KR when his yacht got blown off course into Vietnamese waters. He was detained and brought to S-21. Due to the communists regime’s policy of keeping such rigorous documentation much of the story from Hamill was found through confession papers and the like. In them it appeared that Hamill had somehow remained lucid and clever during his torture, even maintained his sense of humor, claiming that his senior officer in the CIA was Col Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame) and making other references to popular culture figures like Sgt Pepper that seemed to go unrecognized by his captors.
He gave his CIA operatives phone number as his home phone number and made a reference to several family members as his ‘co-conspirators’, as if trying to get a message out from S-21 back home. He referenced his public speaking instructor as ‘S Tarr’ which was his mothers name Esther. In an emotional audio clip from Kerry’s brother, Rob Hamill, from the trial of Duch he described while choking back tears that “He was sending a message to our mother, a message of love and hope. And it was as if, whatever the final outcome, he would have the last say.”
We walked around a corner to Building C which had a slightly different look – the exterior hallways were fenced in with barbed wire. The audio guide explained that originally all of the buildings were like this but only Building C had been left as is. The KR had added the barbed wire to prevent suicides after detainees had committed suicide by jumping over the railing. Others had committed suicide by whatever means available to them, like dousing themselves in lantern oil and setting themselves alight.
Stepping around the barbed wire and into the building revealed rows of what looked to be hastily-constructed, tiny brick prison cells. Holes had been punched through the classroom walls to connect each of the rooms. The cells had no doors, but each had a piece of cement in the floor with a metal loop. Some also had ammo boxes like those in Building A – the audio guide included a description from one survivor that said if they spilled anything on the floor that was intended for the ammo box, they were forced to lick the floor clean. The metal supports visible in the pictures were added recently to keep them standing.
Upstairs from the brick cells was a floor entirely containing wooden cells; what could best be described as closets.
Here’s the view from the upstairs balcony
Building D began with more mugshots like those from Building B, but within a glass cabinet was the special chair that the mugshots were taken in, apparently originally used by the French police.
The next two rooms contained descriptions and paintings of the types of torture that took place, and some of the tools of torture that had been preserved. Most of the “tools” wouldn’t be out of place in any given garden shed – items like hoes and shovels – while others weren’t much more than pieces of wood. Others were more inventive and generally water-themed – one was little more than a watering can used for waterboarding, while another was a tank with a series of inlets and outlets in which the victim was submerged.
All of the artwork in this section depicted horrific scenes but one in particular was especially vile when explained with the audio commentary. In it, a woman restrained to a bed frame had one of her breasts clamped by a torturer while a second KR member crouched on the ground, picking something up into a box. The commentary explained that centipedes were collected to be placed inside of victims’ wounds or in the case of women, in their genitals.
The final room in Building D contained a memorial to the victims with flowers, along with bones and skulls that had been exhumed but remained unidentified.
There were also some pictures of the only known survivors of S-21. There were less than a dozen survivors to make it out from an estimated 20,000 who went in.
The final view was a memorial, I think donated by the Germans, in respect and honor of those poor souls whose lives were taken here.
We left the compound, found our driver and asked him to take us to the Royal Palace.