Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng S-21
Situated in Phon Penh, Tuol Sleng (Hill of the Poisonous Trees) is a former high school used as Security Prison S-21 by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979 to both torture and interrogate at least 20,000 prisoners whom were later killed in the nearby Choeung Ek killing field.
The complex was uncovered in 1979 by Hồ Văn Tây, a Vietnamese combat photographer travelling with the invading Vietnamese army. The stench of rotting corpses lead him and his colleagues to the gates of Tuol Sleng.
In 1980 Tuol Sleng was reopened as a central historical museum recording Khmer Rouge atrocities. The photos taken that day by Hồ, documenting what he saw, are exhibited in Tuol Sleng today.
The musuem is open to the public . The buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979.
The site has four main buildings, known as Building A, B, C, and D.
Building A holds the large cells in which the bodies of the final victims were discovered, their large white graves are prominent in the courtyard.
Th rooms contain only a rusting iron bedframe, beneath a black and white photograph showing the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each photograph, the mutilated body of a prisoner is chained to the bed, killed by his fleeing captors only hours before the prison was captured.
Building B holds galleries of the regime's extensive photograpy collection of prisoners portraits. Building C holds the rooms sub-divided into small cells. Building D holds other memorabilia including leg-irons and instruments of torture. They are accompanied by paintings by former inmate Vann Nath showing people being tortured,.
Shortly after the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 the five, three story school buildings of the complex, were converted into the prison and interrogation center. The buildings were enclosed in barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison cells and torture chambers with the windows inserted with iron bars and covered with razor wire to prevent escape.
In the first months, most victims were soldiers and government officials from the previous Lon Nol regime. Soon academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, (members of the petit boujour) were sent. Eventually, prisoners' families were brought en masse to be killed aside the prisoners to avoid later revebge attacks. In the years to come, Pol Pot purged thousands of party cadre and their families sending them to Tuol Seng and their eventual death. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim.
At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. Upon arrival,every prisoners was carefully photographed to provide proof to upper leadershipof their capture. They were then stripped to their underwear, their possessions confiscated and taken to their cells.
These included two types. In smaller cells, single prisoners were shackled to the wall or floor. In the large mass cells, prisoners were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. All slept on the concrete floors without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets, with all forms of communication forbidden. Hygiene consisted of a hose being turned on through the windows every three or four days and empty ammunition boxes used as toilets. Food sonsisted of four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and a watery soup of leaves twice a day while a sip of drinking water had to be requested with none provided. Every action needed approval by one of the prison's guards.
The unhygienic living conditions caused many skin diseases with lice, rashes, ringworm prevelent. The prison's medical staff were untrained as all doctors had been previously been killed. They offered treatment only to sustain prisoners’ lives after injury during interrogation.
The main objective of the prison was to not kill people but to obtain detailed confessions over time of domestic and international espionage so that the structures could be found and destroyed. This generally took between two to three months. Typical confessions ran into thousands of words with prisoners interweaving true events in their lives with imaginary accounts of their espionage activities for the CIA, the KGB, or Vietnam to placate their interogators. Most confessions were pure fantasy.
In the first section, prisoners were asked to describe their personal background and timeline of events in therir lives. If party members, they had to say when they joined the revolution and describe each work assignment. Next the prisoners would relate their supposed treasonous activities in chronological order. In the the third section they had to describe both supposed thwarted conspiracies and treasonous conversations.
At the end, they were required to list a string of traitors including friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Some lists contained over a hundred names and these people were often called in to S-21. It is believed that the vast majority of prisoners were innocent of the charges against them and that the torture produced false confessions.
To extract confessions physical torture with implements was combined with sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and deliberate neglect of prisoners essential needs. A system of strict regulations craeted excuses for severe beatings that were inflicted on any prisoners who tried to disobey. Torture included being forced to eat human faeces and drink human urine. Sometimes females were raped by the interrogators, even though sexual abuse was against both prison and party policy. If caught the interrogators were executed.
Medical experiments were performed on certain prisoners. Inmates were sliced open and had organs removed with no anaesthetic. Others were attached to intravenous pumps and every drop of blood was drained from their bodies to see how long they could survive witb over 100 prisoners dieing this way. The most difficult prisoners were skinned alive. Although many prisoners died from these abuses, killing them outright was discouraged before their final confessions were completed.
In the first year of S-21’s existence, corpses were buried near the prison, however, by the end of 1976, cadres ran out of burial spaces and Choeung Ek extermination centre was craeted fifteen kilometers outside Phnom Penh. There they were killed with iron bars, pickaxes and machetes to save ammuntion and thrown into mass graves holding scores of bodies.
Out of an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only twelve known survivors. As of September 2011, only three of them are thought to be still alive; Chum Mey, Bou Meng, and Chim Math.
All three were kept alive because they had skills their captors judged to be useful. Bou Meng, whose wife was killed in the prison, is an artist. Chum Mey was kept alive because of his skills in repairing machinery. Chim Math was held in S-21 for 2 weeks and transferred to the nearby Prey Sar prison. She may have been spared because she was from Stoeung district in Kampong Thom where Comrade Duch was born. Vann Nath, who was spared because of his ability to paint, died on September 5, 2011.
Even though the vast majority of the victims were Cambodian, foreigners, including 488 Vietnamese, 31 Thai, 1 Laotian, 1 Arab, 1 British, 4 French, 2 Americans, 1 New Zealander, 2 Australians, 1 Indonesian and many Indians and Pakistanis. No foreign prisoners survived captivity in Tuol Sleng.
Almost all non-Cambodians Westerners had left the country by early May 1975, following an overland evacuation of the French Embassy in trucks. It is possible that a handful of French nationals who went missing after the 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh also passed through S-21 though records are absent. The foreign civilians who remained were seen as a security risk with most being either Vietnamese or Thai.
Of the known French interred in S21 were two Franco-Vietnamese brothers named Rovin and Harad Bernard detained in April 1976 after transfer from Siem Reap where they had worked tending cattle. Another Frenchman named Andre Gaston Courtigne, a 30-year-old clerk and typist at the French embassy, was arrested the same month along with his Khmer wife.
The other Western prisoners were mainly picked up just of the coast by Khmer Rouge patrols between April 1976 and December 1978. These included four Americans, three French, two Australians, a Briton and a New Zealander.
Americans ncluded James Clark and Lance McNamara who were sailing by Cambodia in April 1978 when their boat drifted off course and sailed into its territorial waters; and Michael S. Deeds with his friend Christopher E. DeLance on November 24, 1978 while sailing from Singapore to Hawaii.
John D. Dewhirst, a British tourist, was sailing with his New Zealand companion, Kerry Hamill, and their Canadian friend Stuart Glass when their boat drifted into Cambodian territory and was intercepted on August 13, 1978. Glass was killed during the arrest, while Dewhirst and Hamil.
All were taken ashore, blindfolded, placed on trucks, and taken to S-21.
Former Tuol Sleng Khmer Rouge photographer Nim Im claims that the records are not comple. Also there are eyewitness accounts of a Cuban and a Swiss passing through the prison, though no official records exist.
The prison had a staff of 1,720 people. Of those, approximately 300 were office staff, internal workforce and interrogators. The other 1,400 were general workers, including people who grew food for the prison. Several of these workers were children taken from the prisoner families.
The chief of the prison was Khang Khek Ieu (also known as Comrade Duch), a former mathematics teacher who worked closely with Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Other leading figures of S-21 were Kim Vat aka Ho (deputy chief of S-21), Peng (chief of guards), Mam Nai aka Chan (chief of the Interrogation Unit), and Tang Sin Hean aka Pon (interrogator). Pon was the person who interrogated important people such as Keo Meas, Nay Sarann, Ho Nim, Tiv Ol, and Phok Chhay.
The documentation unit was responsible for transcribing tape-recorded confessions, typing the handwritten notes from prisoners’ confessions, preparing summaries of confessions, and maintaining files. In the photography sub-unit, workers took mug shots of prisoners when they arrived, pictures of prisoners who had died while in detention, and pictures of important prisoners after they were executed. Thousands of photographs have survived, but thousands are still missing.
The defense unit was the largest unit in S-21 with its guards mainly teenagers finding the strict rules hard to obey. Guards who made serious mistakes were arrested, interrogated, jailed and put to death. Most of the people employed at S-21 were terrified of making mistakes and feared being tortured and killed.
The interrogation unit was split into three separate groups: Political (chewing), Hot (cruel) and Cold (gentle). The Cold unit was prohibited from using torture to obtain confessions. If they could not make prisoners confess, they would transfer them to the Hot unit who could use torture. The chewing unit dealt with tough and important cases.
Some of the staff who worked in Tuol Sleng also ended up as prisoners. They confessed to being lazy in preparing documents, to having damaged machines and various equipment, and to having beaten prisoners to death without permission when assisting with interrogations.
The ten rules of S-21
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.