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Warning: Graphic details and photos ahead
Under Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge Regime, there were 196 detention centers operated all over Cambodia, but S-21 (State Security 21), also known as Tuol Sleng, was the highest level security prison and the most notorious of them all. S-21 was considered to be of utmost importance by the Khmer Rouge. Its management reported to the highest echelons of the regime. While the majority of Khmer people were being starved, killed and suffered from diseases in the countryside fields, a small number of political prisoners and their relatives were being interrogated, tortured and killed inside S-21.
S-21 was comprised of a detention center in the capital, Phnom Penh, and an execution site at Choeung Ek (one of the Killing Fields), located in Kandal province, some ten miles southwest of the capital. S-21 started operating in October 1975 and remained in operation until January 7, 1979, when the staff fled due to the invading Vietnamese forces.
Located in a quiet residential part of the city, the S-21 prison occupied a complex which used to house a high school before 1975. It was the stench of blood and rotting corpses that brought two Vietnamese combat photographers to its location on January 10, 1979, three days after the liberation army declared the fall of the regime. To workers assigned by the regime to the prison and its surrounding neighborhood, S-21 was simply known as “the place where people go in but never come out.”
At any one time, S-21 held between 1,000 and 1,500 prisoners. According to various studies, the number of prisoners taken to S-21 ranged from 12,273 to 20,000; of these, two were my maternal great-uncles.
The man who ran S-21, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, a math whiz and former school teacher, was also in charge of providing interrogation and execution techniques for the prison staff. S-21 was divided into several units: the Interrogation Unit, the Documentation Unit (responsible for registering and maintaining records), the Defense Unit, which had two sub-units, the Guard Unit (responsible for guarding the victims within the prison complex) and the Special Unit. The Special Unit had several duties: it received prisoners who were sent to S¬21 or, in some cases, made arrests or transferred prisoners; it intervened in emergencies and escorted prisoners to Choeung Ek and carried out executions. According to Duch, S-21 was both a political and military establishment. He stated that S-21 was an independent military regiment under the direct control of the Khmer Rouge General Staff. Duch’s direct superior was Son Sen, the Khmer Rouge Defense Minister.
Duch and his deputies ran a tight and matriculated organization. Prisoners arrived in S-21 almost daily in groups and at all hours of the day. The Special Unit escorted them into the prison. They were handcuffed and blindfolded. Prisoners were then registered by the Documentation Unit. They then had to provide comprehensive accounts of their lives, starting from their childhood until the point of capture. Upon arrival, prisoners were also photographed. They were then escorted to their cells by the guards. Records collected from S-21 were found in chronological order from the prisoners entering the prison to their last days in the prison as well as forced confessions made by the prisoners. Documents recovered also included personnel records of the Khmer Rouge security officers, daily execution logs, and other bureaucratic details from within the regime extermination apparatus and biographies of prisoners.
Prisoners were methodically interrogated. Their interrogations were carried out by S-21 personnel. Once the prisoners had been allocated cells, the interrogators would take them from their cells and escort them, blindfolded, to the interrogation rooms. The prisoners were required to respond to the accusations that had led to their arrests. Interrogation sessions did not end until the confessions made by the prisoner were considered to be satisfactory. Prisoners could be interrogated repeatedly and could be ordered to rewrite their confessions several times. In general, Duch had the power to decide whether to use violence, except for important prisoners or those whom the higher-ups had special interest, in which case they would issue specific instructions.
Prisoners were repeatedly tortured. The interrogators used several forms of torture to extract confessions from the victims. According to Duch, four methods were authorized: blows, electric shocks, plastic bag choking, and waterboarding. However, it appears that other forms of ill-treatment were used in addition to these four methods. Fingernails and toenails of victims undergoing interrogation were punctured and removed. A cold water and fan technique was used as well, which consisted of undressing prisoners and applying an electric current to their genitals and ears.
A blood drawing technique was also used at S-21. Duch admitted some 100 plus prisoners were killed after S-21 doctors drew large quantities of their blood. Prisoners lied on a bed, their handcuffs were removed, and their feet were shackled and they were blindfolded. A needle was then inserted into their veins and their blood drawn until they died, after which their bodies were taken to Choeung Ek. The blood drawn from the prisoners was then sent to hospitals, and used in particular for transfusions for the Khmer Rouge soldiers who were wounded while fighting Vietnamese forces.
Under the force of their torture, some prisoners were coerced into naming family members and friends, who were in turn detained, tortured and killed. Some prisoners confessed to being a spy for the CIA, KGB or the Vietnamese government. Many died from being tortured, but killing them right away was discouraged by the regime. It was important to get prisoner to confess first.
In one memo from a meeting, Duch told his interrogator to, “Remind him about the welfare of his wife and children. Does he know that his wife and children have been detained? Now that he is here, does he know what has become of his wife?”
In the early period of S-21’s existence, most of the prisoners were from the previous regime, including soldiers, government officials, doctors, factory workers and intellectuals. Later, the regime leadership’s paranoia turned on its own rank and file and so began the purge. Throughout the country, thousands of the Khmer Rouge’s followers and their families were brought to S-21 and killed. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking Khmer Rouge politicians such as Keo Meas, Khoy Thoun, Cheng An, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim.
Some of the children who were taken to S-21 were executed on its premises. Young children were generally executed immediately after they were separated from their parents, although some of them were allowed a brief respite before their execution. High-ranking Khmer Rouge official and foreigners were killed and buried at the prison also. For the rest of the prisoners, they were killed at Choeung Ek.
Prisoners were transferred by trucks to Choeung Ek in the evening by the Special Unit in groups of 30 to 40. They were escorted, handcuffed and blindfolded, to the trucks and were under the strict control of the guards during the excursion. Prisoners were told that they were being transferred to another office. A small number of guards were stationed permanently at Choeung Ek. Their mission was to maintain the secrecy of the site, dig pits and bury the bodies. To ensure that a top secret was kept and also that the executions were carried out properly, Duch and his deputies Him Huy and Peng were requested to attend all executions by Son Sen.
The number of prisoners executed at Choeung Ek on a daily basis varied from thirty to over three hundred. The latter figure was recorded in May, 1978 at the height of the purge in the Eastern Zone. At Choeung Ek, prisoners were herded into a house. The guards then took them out one by one and told them that they were being transferred to another house. Either Him Huy or Peng verified prisoners’ names against a “must-smash” list prepared by the head of Documentation Unit Suos Thy and approved by Duch beforehand. This list ensured that not one prisoner was missed. Prisoners were told to kneel down at the edge of the pits and then they were clubbed on the neck with tools such as cart axle, hoe, stick, wooden club or whatever else served as a weapon of death. They were sometimes stabbed with knives or swords to save using bullets, which were deemed to be expensive. Babies and young children were smashed against the trees.
Duch said “We had instructions from the Party on how to kill them, but we didn’t use bullets and usually, we slit their throats. We killed them like chickens” Him Huy recalled “They were ordered to kneel down at the edge of the hole. Their hands were tied behind them. They were beaten on the neck with an iron ox-cart axle, sometimes with one blow, sometimes with two…”
After prisoners were executed, Duch’s deputies made sure that no one was alive. Then the list at Choeung Ek was submitted to Suos Thy back at S-21 to double-check that no prisoners were missed.
Today, S-21 is operating as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. The complex looks just as ordinary as every other school in Cambodia. The first floor classrooms in one building have been left as they were before the fall of the regime. Each interrogation and torture room is equipped with a desk and a chair facing a steel bed frame with manacles at each end. On the walls are the pictures of fourteen bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted the two Vietnamese combat photographers on that January 10. Those fourteen victims were buried in the courtyard. Classrooms in the ground-floors display pictures of victims. With rows and rows of haunting pictures of men, women and children lining the walls in room after room after room.
On July 26, 2010, Duch was found guilty of crimes against humanity, torture, and murder. He was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment by the UN-backed tribunal prompting my grandmother to say, “They killed us, but we can’t kill them.”
Examples of several victims at S-21:
- Hul Hong, male, architect, detained 1/21/1976 and killed 5/27/1976
- Ky Sokha, female, wife of a soldier
- In Sophann, 41, male, French-trained mechanical engineer, detained 2/19/1977 and killed 3/3/1977
- Khim Kim San, male, surgeon, detained 7/11/1977 and killed 12/30/1977
- Keo Oun, 48, male, fisherman
- Kol Sovoeurn, 50, male, director of Katha Bopha Children’s Hospital
- Long Thiravuth, student, related to Long Boret (Prime Minister of the previous regime), killed 3/29/1976
- Yâng Chan, my grandmother’s older brother. He was a soldier. He would have been 46 in 1975.
Sources: DC-CAM, Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia, Yale’s Cambodia Genocide Program, A&E’s Inside Pol Pot’s Secret Prison, Nic Dunlop’s The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge, David Chandler’s Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum