Translated by: Pal Capewell
After getting off the night bus, our next stop was perhaps the saddest part of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh’s history.
Upon stepping into Toul Sleng, or by it’s more famous name S-21, the same heart wrenching feeling took over that I felt upon walking into the House of Terror in Budapest or walking around Auschwitz. There it stood in front of us the “security jail” of the Khmer Rouge, where countless people were tortured to death not too long ago.
I don’t want to play the historian here, merely pass on what we heard and saw in the jail-museum. I will do my best to portray all details and depict everything as vividly as I can in this writing. Oftentimes it’s going to be shaking and horrific.
First of all, one must talk of Pol Pot, who became the leader of the Cambodian communist party after completing his studies in France. He carried out over ten years of guerrilla war against the Cambodian government, then on April 17th, 1975, he overtook Phnom Penh with the Khmer Rouge. With the launch of Democratic Cambodia (also known as Democratic Kampuchea), a new life began for Cambodia, starting at year 0.
People had high hopes and celebrated the arrival of Khmer Rouge’s army. Why? Well, the ever so secret war really wasn’t that big of a secret around Southeast Asia. Laos and Cambodia were swept into the war alongside Vietnam. Naturally, a complete anti-U.S. atmosphere took over. People had enough of living under a thumb, the suffering and the war. Gradually everyone became very spiteful. With the Rouge’s “freeing” movement, Cambodians grew hopeful. Finally they could be independent without any suppressing!
Or not so much. Three hours after the celebrations, Khmer Rouge (aka Angkar, or “the Order”) ordered the evacuation of Phnom Penh. The people were told the easiest lie at hand: Americans are going to bomb the capital again so everyone must leave. In reality that’s when the four years of terror began. Pol Pot was working on establishing the epitome of communism. His goal was to turn the country into an absolutely sole class society, based on agriculture. Pol Pot’s utopian vision became the downfall of his own country.
All towns were evacuated, people were led to the rice-fields to work: everyone had to go, if anyone resisted, they were shot on the spot. Women, children, elderly, those fallen-ill were no exception. People could only take a few bare essentials before they were led off, on foot, to their appointed sections by the army. Many didn’t even make it that far - the hunger, thirst, exhaustion killed many. The Rouge closed down the schools, factories and prohibited all religions.
The quota, established by the evil Angkar, that people had to comply with, was three tons of rice on one hectare of field. (To better understand the magnitude of this, Angkor’s booming days could only produce one third of said amount.) The use of machines was out of the question, people had to depend on their strength, while working on the fields and building canals. Literally, people were used instead of animals in front of the plow.
People living in cities before hadn’t the faintest idea of work on the fields and growing rice. The Rouge had people working in the murderous heat from dawn to dusk, 15-19 hours a day. The daily food portion was one bawl of rice boiled in water, once a day, during the shared meal time. Soon enough the rice sources were depleted and people went hungry. Angkar, “who had as much brain as a pineapple”, was guarding people like a hawk. They killed people for as much as picking up a mango and eating it, as in their eyes, that was stealing from Angkar. Many of those who didn’t die from starvation died from exhaustion.
People from the cities were labeled “new” people, forming the biggest enemy of the Angkar. They didn’t know of farming; doctors, teachers, artists, priests, “soft-handed” and glass-wearing. They were all cleared off first thing, many were executed right on the spot, some were transferred to a “security holding” like the one S-21 is. After killing off the intellectual layer, the common people were the next target. The leaders, with Pol Pot right there, began to see KGB or CIA agents in everyone. From the “new” people to the “old” (farmers), even the Rouge leaders....everyone gave reason for suspicion.
Tuol Sleng, or S-21 Security Holding and the mass grave next to Phnom Penh are just one-one example of the gruesome establishments the Rouge was responsible for all around Cambodia. Just like the Nazis, the Rouge had tortures and executions according to a devilishly manufactured script.
Innocent people were taken to S-21 where they were tortured for months, some even for years, three times a day. Many of them didn’t survive.
Specific and neat documentation was practiced by the Rouge. Pictures were taken of the captured innocent people before and after tortures. There were rooms where people were chained together by their ankles, that’s how they laid on the ground. There were private cells as well, numbered, like inmates. The torture sessions took place on the schoolyard or in designated buildings within the school.
Those visiting Toul Sleng were shown the jail’s code of conduct (Taken from TripAdvisors picture regarding the rules)
- You must answer accordingly to my questions - don’t turn them away.
- Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
- Don’t be food for you are a chap dare to thwart the revolution.
- You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
- While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
- 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.
- Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
- If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
- If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Further on, each jail cell had one copy of the following rules:
- You may never talk with your inmates or neighbors!
- You are only permitted to do what your guard allowed you!
- Don’t try to create noise, commotion or you’ll suffer for it greatly!
- If you hear your guard approaching, you lay face down on the ground.
- Don’t even think of outsmarting the rules!
Who were the S-21 workers? Illiterate Cambodians from faraway lands. These unfortunate dumb souls were easily manipulated and brainwashed. Their “training” consisted of explaining the great benefits of torture, the only way to get the truth. Torture is good, inmates bad. As time went on however, oftentimes the torturer became the tortured.
The means of torture were varied. Beating, nail removal, toe breaking, hanging people into water or feces, electroshock - just to name a few. They removed the breasts for women by pliers and put insects on the wounds. Inmates were prohibited from screaming during these procedures as well as prohibited from talking with one another.
As doctors were eradicated all over Democratic Kampuchea, medicine and medical care were non-existent. Poor tortured souls were handled by illiterate “cavemen”. During their four months medical training, Angkar’s “medical team” practiced on pillows how to give injection, learned how they get Vitamin C by mixing sugar, vinegar and water. The prisoners’ - half-dead victims really - wounds were treated with salt and 100% alcohol.
The so called blood transfusion were handled by these trained “nurses” as well. They took down four bags of blood from the victim then turned him over to face the wall till their soul left their bodies. The corpses were buried in the S-21 courtyard.
The killing fields are unmarked cemeteries around 15km south of Phnom Penh. When S-21 deemed to small for all these bodies, they were taken here after sundown, making as little noise as possible. Half-dead prisoners were hit on the head here, by wood, steel rods, etc. When the bodies fell into the depth, their throats were cut.
This is where the “Babies Tree” is located as well, where prison guards hit the babies against the trees. The Rouge, moreover, killed all those with Vietnamese and Muslim origins.
The world turned its head away from Cambodia
Perhaps it’s worthy to mention that the hippie movement from the 60s had increasingly pacifying aims. The European student revolts, strikes and the protests of American youngsters were all connected by the anti-war mindset. The western leftist-liberals adopted a Maoist way of thinking and Che Guevara became popular.
During Pol Pot’s reign of terror, only a few journalists of the Cambodian-Swedish Association were allowed in. The two weeks long visit was a well-organized theatrical show. Western youngsters were shown the factories, the rice fields, and communities where everything was at its best. Gunnar Bergström Swedish journalist and his mates were mass-producing articles praising the Pol Pot system. They made fun of Cambodian refugees in Thailand and Vietnam, who were talking of a reign of terror, mass murders and and referred to their country as a massive “wallless” jail.
The downfall of the Democratic Cambodia was brought by the Vietnamese when they were informed of the mass-killings of Vietnamese minorities. The troops reached Phnom Penh in January 7th, 1979, and discovered the jail a day later. The prison-guards fled the jail after killing the remaining fourteen prisoners by hitting them dead to avoid gunshot sounds.
Swedish journalists still denied the possibility of such heinous reign in Cambodia, despite plenty of evidence supporting the horrific and evil works of Pol Pot. Bergström still remained adamant that what he saw in 1978 was true and valid.
In 1980, S-21 was transformed into a museum. Surprisingly and unfortunately however, Cambodian students only started to learn about Pol Pot and his reign of terror from 2009 (!!!).
In 2008, Gunnar Bergström returned to Cambodia and visited S-21. (You may read on about that here)
Only seven people survived the years spent in Tuol Sleng, two of them still alive today. Balazs and I were lucky enough that we got to meet both of them in the museum’s garden. They can thank their lives to the special skills they possessed, which the Angkar was in need of. One could draw very well, another knew how to fix machines.
Bergström was deeply shaken and apologized to the survivors in public. He just realized what a big role he had in maintaining Pol Pot’s sick reign and his role in his political propaganda. The whole European continent believed the Khmer Rouge’s lies. Bergstörm and his team were used as a loudspeaker for Pol Pot’s brainwashing.
Democratic Cambodia’s highest leaders were still allowed to roam around freely and live happily in parts of Cambodia that was under their control. Pol Pot was under some sort of “house arrest” in 1997, and in 1998 he perished.
In 2006, The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was launched to handle the Khmer Rouge trials for those participating the reign of terror. S-21’s commander, Kain Guek Eav, was sentenced to life in prison. Khieu Samphan (president), Ieng Sary (foreign affairs minister), and Nuon Chea (the founder of the Khmer Rouge ideology) are still on trial, with no sentence announced yet. Ieng Thirith, who acted as social affairs minister and was the foreign minister’s wife, was excused due to losing her mind because of old age.
After our visit was over in the museum, Balazs and I sat for a bit in the garden. We listened through the audio program and gave ourselves time to let the info of the past three hours sink in.
How could such a catastrophe ever happen? Why did the world turn away from Cambodia? Even today, many events are only covered by a few media outlets, how can we know whether we should trust them?
By now Balazs and I also became carriers of the Tuol Sleng history, and as those, we feel it is our duty to pass on what we have seen and heard within the barbed wires of S-21. We pass it on, so more and more people hear this story.