I was 24-hours into my stay in Phnom Penh and reasonably happy with my progress on the guns-in-Cambodia article I was working on. I’d put the issue of waking to a city half under water behind me and was cutting across dilapidated suburbs in the back of a screeching tuk tuk in the direction of S-21; a school-turned-Khmer Rouge detention centre. I was however somewhat concerned by the fact that I now had a driver called Sonny and an interpreter/guide called Thida in tow. If I continued to make friends at such a rate I’d have an entourage like 50 Cent by the end of my stay.
After the perilous three-wheel journey across Phnom Penh’s battered roads we pulled down a side alley and up to a totally innocuous, if somewhat worn, three-storey building. S-21 however, which now serves as a Cambodian genocide museum, was anything but.
When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975 the school was converted into a prison for people considered politically suspect. Initially, members of the US-backed Lon Nol regime the Khmer Rouge had just defeated were the main targets for detention, but as the years passed and the Maoists bedded in, men, women and children seen as being in anyway unorthodox or counter-revolutionary were herded into S-21. Those arrested were tortured into naming their co-conspirators when generally, no conspiracy existed. Desperate for an end to their torment they named anyone and everyone who came to mind, giving the cadres a new batch to round up. The systematic and studiously recorded torture of the inmates in S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, was too much for practically everyone taken in and most didn’t survive more than a few months. Out of an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned only twelve are known to have survived.
Myself and Thida left a sheepish Sonny waiting outside and started our tour. Many of the former classrooms in the building featured a photograph of what was found in that particular room when the Vietnamese Army finally drove the Khmer Rouge out of the city and S-21 in 1979. In many cases, you would walk into a room that had a metal bed in it. On the wall, there would be a photo of that same bed only with a partially decomposed individual strapped to it.
Other rooms featured crude brick partitions that divided them into tiny cells were prisoners were kept chained to the floor. Thida did her best to explain what was around me but when we went into a long hallway which featured photographs of thousands of terrified and ultimately doomed prisoners, some little more than babies, she just lost it and started crying her eyes out. The sun was beating down and birds were chirping away in the shrubs and bushes in the building’s courtyard, but there was a chilling, claustrophobic feel to the rooms we walked through. I’d seen more than enough and to Thida’s obvious relief, we headed back to Sonny’s tuk tuk. The two Khmers couldn’t get away from the place fast enough and it was clear that the events of the Khmer Rouge days still cast a long shadow over Cambodia’s people.
It seems incredible then that even today, former Khmer Rouge leaders are in positions of power right across the country. The current Prime Minister Hun Sen is a former KR strongman and has held power for much of the last 30 years. He even managed to secure a healthy majority in an election held just last month.
Happily, international pressure has led to at least some leading figures being brought to book for the things they did during their time in control of the stricken country. Among those taken into custody and awaiting trial under the country’s Genocide Tribunal is Kaing Guek Eav or Duch; S-21’s prison director. Today, Cambodian prisons are notoriously harsh and the conditions prisoners suffer are extreme. I’m not sure what sort of handling Duch is at the mercy of right now but after seeing what he and his cadres dished out to thousands in S-21 in the 1970s, it’s unlikely it could possibly be as bad as it should be.
© Rob Carry. All rights reserved by the author.