Lest we forget. Revisiting Tuol Sleng Prison

I went back to Tuol Sleng Prison Today.  I’ve been before, earlier in my trip, but found seeing both The Killing Fields and this the S-21 Torture Centre of the Khmer Rouge in one day  traumatic and difficult to process.  It’s not exactly that I wanted to revisit this place of horrors, but it seemed important to do so.  I’m glad I did.


It was a weird sort of morning though.  I meet with a fellow volunteer at ‘our corner’ where we meet to head to the Olympic Stadium. She hadn’t been before, and I was up to go back in a necessary but not looking forward to sort of way, so we could go together.  We met around 7.00 and walked.  It wasn’t far, we are getting a bit better at navigating on foot, it’s really not that bad if you head out early enough.

We were hungry, but got right to the museum entrance without finding anywhere to stop.  This meant that we ended up getting delicious mango shakes for just a dollar, whilst sitting diagonally opposite the entrance to this place of horrors.  We sat on speedily vacated little wooden stools, and a confident little girl with excellent English engaged us in conversation whilst we waited for our shakes.  Turns out her dad lives in Scotland.  He brings her lovely presents and has taught her English, one day she will save up to go and visit. Me and my companion had different takes on this. She imagined because her English was so good he must be living here, I took it that he’d basically abandoned her mother when she got pregnant, but flies in now and again showering his daughter with gifts whilst essentially taking no real responsibility. For me it was the comment about her ‘saving up to go one day’ which nailed it.  I hope I’m wrong, but…. even so, she was very engaging, and will be fine.  She had a very small child with her who was a neighbour.  She does dancing, but couldn’t show us without the music.  I thought it would be traditional dancing, but no, she learns ballet – so maybe there is money around.  It was a good fun interaction, and we spent a pleasant half hour or so in chit-chat and sipping our shakes, whilst my stomach turned in anticipation of the contrast that lay ahead.

We crossed the road back to the Museum entrance, and found out in fact it opened at 8.00 not 7.00 as we’d thought, so we were bang on time anyway.  It is $3 admission, and $6 for the audio tour which I’d really recommend.  It is brilliant.  I took my time going round, and the tour gave a lot of detail I’d missed before, it is not easy listening, but it is important, it tells some human stories.   I got more out of the visit this time, I spent over 3 hours probably.  Because I wasn’t quite so stunned with shock this time – not because it isn’t shocking, but because I knew this time what to expect) I was able to process it more thoughtfully.  In some ways that magnifies the horrors, because the connections with what is happening now in terms of American politics are so vivid.  On the other hand, confronting as it all is, it is so important these stories are told and understood.

I’ve done a previous post on my impressions of Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, so I’ll focus on the new things that stood out this time.  The basic facts are that

(Cambodian/Khmer: សារមន្ទីរឧក្រិដ្ឋកម្មប្រល័យពូជសាសន៍ទួលស្លែង) is a museum, chronicling genocide , in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng (Cambodian/Khmer [tuəl slaeŋ]) means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill”. Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country,[1] and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were later killed.

Formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School,[2] named after a royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War,[3] into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex “Security Prison 21” (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.[2] Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim Although the official reason for their arrest was “espionage”, these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners’ families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later executed at the Choeung Ek extermination center.

In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime

So things that were punched home this time, in no particular order:

  • it still just looks like a school for goodness sake.  The very ordinariness of the buildings, such a recognisable construction.  But some subtle changes.  The ventilation grids were blocked up on the ground floor, and glass put in to add to the heat?  To prevent the cries of the tortured from being heard?   It still is a school though, at heart.  You see these same buildings everywhere in use today.


  • Realising all over again that these people could be me. I was about ten when all this was happening, some of the testimonies are written by people younger than me.  This is recent history – very recent.
  • These photographs are a minority of those tortured and killed. Many records were burned, the pictures survived because they became separated from other records.  Most are anonymous.  This centre was one of hundreds across the country, the killing fields too, just one location.  You have to scale up what you see. I have taken these photos from a website that has just a few from the genocide museum.  I can’t look at them too long.  These show men, women and children too.  One shows other prisoners in chains behind, some have unmistakable background images of the prison itself.  Chilling doesn’t begin to describe it.

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  • The faces of victims.  They aren’t all people who were imprisoned at S21, though I think it is fair to say they are all victims of the regime.  Some are ‘cadres’ the child soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, notable for their Maoist uniforms. I did understand this before, but I didn’t really look at their individual faces in the rows and rows of pictures.  It is so disturbing
  • The torture wasn’t intended to be gratuitous. There were actually regulations that said it was purely to extract confessions, not to release anger.  Stunningly, one guard who raped a female prisoner during an interrogation session was himself imprisoned for doing so, and a female interrogator appointed to avoid a repeat. There is a bizarre and twisted standard in evidence here.  It makes little sense though, given the horrors of physical torture inflicted on the prisoners.  Especially since many women were raped there anyway, as part of an interrogation process or otherwise.
  • Amongst the victims was a westerner John Dawson Dewhirst a Brit, and his sailing companion a New Zealander Kerry Hamill.  Just because they are westerners, it does not make their fate any worse than that of the Cambodians tortured and killed.  However, their torture-induced testimonies reveal the desperation that victims went to, in order to try to satisfy the impossible demands of their interrogators.  Kerry Hamill identified Captain Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken) as a key CIA intelligence trainer.  His brother gave moving testimony at the trial of Duch, who ran S-21 at one time. Noting of his brother’s statement

“In his confession, Kerry stated that Colonel Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, a popular chain of fast-food restaurants, was one of his superiors,” Hamill said. “He used our home telephone number as his CIA operative number and mentioned several family friends as supposed members of the CIA.”


  • Having my attention drawn to the water boarding equipment, in amongst the other pieces of torture devices.  The audio commentary explains that this is now illegal, and that it is proven torture is ineffective in gathering confessions which is why it cannot be used.  Donald Trump believes otherwise. ‘It absolutely works. This is terrifying.
  • The innocuous looking boxes for keeping centipedes in. These were used by guards as part of torture. There is a painting (done by a victim, kept alive because he could paint and document what was happening) it shows guards placing the venomous centipedes on a woman’s nipple, they were also put on her genitals to crawl up inside
  • There is also a painting of one of the mass ceslls, lines of people in leg irons, so closely packed it is reminiscent of slave ships.  In fact, the painter (who had himself been in one of the mass detention rooms) has put shorts on the inmates to protect their dignity here, and in a painting of them being ‘showered’ to give some illusion of modesty. They were in fact naked.  The ‘shower’ shown happened to one survivor only once in three months.  A hose was sprayed through the window landing on people at random or not at all. They were naked.  AFterwards they had to clean the floor with whatever rags of clothes were left
  • The photos of the distorted bodies of the dead, where they lay, hacked about, starved, in pools of their own blood and putrefying bodies.


  • The floors still stained with blood and you know not what.
  • It was so darned quick. A world can unravel with alarming speed if you allow a delusional dictator full reign.  Just saying
  • This time I spent longer in rooms with displays about the history. They are sadly limited, this is not a well-funded museum, and information is sparse and not all that clearly presented.  However, even so, as you read about the bombardment to which Cambodia had been subject, the amount of ordinance that fell on this poor country, caught up in  power game between America and China you can absolutely see how ‘my enemies enemy is my friend’.  America bombed and bombed Cambodia.  A strong leader offering an alternative was going to be welcomed.  It makes complete sense.  It frustrates me that I can’t find a decent history of Cambodia anywhere – though the BBC do give a basic history of Cambodia, even more that I can’t retain enough details to give even a sketchy one here. But the point is people did welcome Pol Pot soldiers as a liberating army into Phnom Penh. They were getting their country back (sound familiar), but within three hours, they were being cleared from Phnom Penh, their nightmare was only just beginning, as Pol Pot returned the land to year zero – and in search of an agricultural ‘utopia’.

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  • There were thoughtful exhibition I missed before. One was photographs of the actual guards living their lives ‘now’ (now being I think 2009, when the photos were taken).  They were/ are (surprise, surprise) very normal.  People just fishing or farming. These few (most would not wish to either be identified or speak of their past) gave brief statements of their experience. The general expression was ‘there was no choice, it was kill or be killed.’  One said, he had no ‘regret’ because he had no free will.  But it was horrific, he would welcome the chance to speak honestly about what he did and saw, because it is a story that should be told.  A couple said they had ‘no regrets’ with more ambiguity.   Really?  Or do they mean they could not do things differently in future because it was what it was.  Some appeared not to recognise themselves, or expressed real resentment that it was they, not their superiors who were being held to account.
  • The most terrifying (to me) and new bit of information, was the news that a delegation from Sweden went to visit Cambodia in the midst of all this, and reported back that all was well. This meant those refugees that had escaped and were telling horrific stories of torture, starvation and hardship were disbelieved.  You can sort of see why, the brutality is ‘beyond belief’ but the fact that the Swedish delegates got it so wrong that it compounded the horrors is truly shocking. You wonder why they were so naive, but then again, you believe what you want to believe at times I suppose.  Gunnar Bergstrom has since apologised for his mistake.  His collusion was as nothing compared to that of governments
  • Then there is the inescapable truth, that Pol Pot was supported in exile by America.  I appreciate I may not know all the facts, I recognise I too might be naive, but you can’t visit these places and leave without recognising that Cambodian people were victims of endless battles that were not of their making, and the instigators of these horrors whether from without or within, ultimately got away scot free.  It’s happening now in the world, if we would just see it. Jon Pilger puts it like this:

If the US. bombing was the first phase of Cambodia’s holocaust and Pol Pot’s Year Zero the second, the third phase was the use of the United Nations by Washington, its allies and China as the instrument of Cambodia’s, and Vietnam’s, punishment.

  • The United Nations for gawds sake?  What hope then for any or all of us now.
  • The story of a visitor who came to see the rooms and photos at S-21 and spotted a picture of her missing brother amongst the many faces staring back.  Knowing the worst.
  • S-21 had constant light.  In a city where there was no electricity, generators kept the school. torture centre ablaze with light 24 hours a day.  Hard to see how this place was secret really.  Not talked of possibly, but secret?
  • Even though any intellectual was regarded with suspicion – soft hands, glasses being illiterate enough to make you an enemy of the people.  (Well done for that too Trump) Duch (commander at S-21) used to keep  two pens in his shirt pocket as a bizarre sort of status symbol.  Maybe doubly so – he could read and write, and was powerful enough that he could broadcast this with impunity
  • The fourteen raised graves as monuments to the last victims of the tuol sleng building, those left behind dead as S-21 was abandoned. We don’t know who they are.  They may have been documented on arrival, but were unidentifiable in death


  • The two survivors of Tuol Sleng, were both their.  Daily they sit behind banners proclaiming their past.  Selling their books in retirement and telling their stories.  What must it be like to constantly come back here, day after day, and relive the darkest of times.  The BBC account is a good one.

A warning for all humanity?  There is a voice on the audio tape at the end, an ambassador speaking at I think, the trials which looked at what happened at S-21.  It says it does not accept the excuse of ‘only following orders’ because to do so without reference to a moral code is the end of being human. The words are emotive, and I’d like them to be true, and easy to follow through on,  but maybe the real horror is that faced with such a regime, with absolute power, where you sense to resist is utterly futile, what would any of us do?  I don’t know.  I really don’t.  Then again, I don’t know how people endured as long as some did at S-21, tortured up to three times daily, on starvation rations, in tiny cells, being made to lick up their own waste from the floor.  One survived over a year in that place.  I feel pathetic because of having a cold.   I think I’d roll over and die almost instantaneously

The time to get angry is when you see the advance begin.  Don’t wait for the tyrant to be in power, or to have absolute power.  Keep the critical voices alive

I came across this website which has some of the photos from the Tuol Sleng Museum.  Imagine the horror of visiting, as one Cambodian did, and finding a picture of your own brother staring back at you. Now you know the worst.  He ended up here in this hell of unimaginable horrors.  What can you do with a grief like that?  These are only a fraction of the photos on display.  I don’t know why these ones have been put up in particular.

Here are more  links if you have the stomach for them.  I haven’t read them all yet myself, but list them here for when I feel able to look again as look we must.  In fact, enough of this now, these might not even be good links.  The history needs to be told though

Duch giving testimony at the tribunal into what happened at S-21

A survivor gives testimony about his past

Drinking wine with human gall-bladders

By chance, as I was finishing the audio tour, I ended up in the White Lotus Room.  An area for meditation and reflection, which was just what was needed.  A calm cool space. A woman in charge of the room was lying on some mats, and gestured for me to sign in on a clipboard with my name, nationality and occupation.  A few minutes later a man joined us and sat cross-legged at one end of the room. Twenty minutes later a tour group traipsed in.  I’d noticed them on the way round.  I think Cambodians, noisily posing doing peace signs at various points around the school.  Once we had all gathered, the man picked up a little flute or pipe, and played a soothing traditional melody, followed by plucking away at some sort of (presumably traditional) Cambodian lute.  It was calming.  I felt we should have clapped at the end, but it didn’t feel appropriate. Instead we drifted way.

I did say to the musician that I thought it was lovely, and I’d like to have clapped but it felt wrong to do so.  He smiled broadly.  It occurred to me that if he does this daily, or frequently at least, then maybe he has become immune to the horror of his surroundings. It’s just his job, you can have a laugh at work and the most ‘ordinary’ of days, even here.

As an aside, last weekend ‘First they killed my father‘, the new Angelina Jolie film about the time of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was premiered at Angkor Wat.  I have no idea of the merits of the film, but wonder if it will help tell the stories again.  I understand it is mostly in Khmer.  It feels uncomfortable that is an outsider bringing this film into being, but to be fair, it is based on a book of the same name by Loung Ung.  Ms Ung was five when she and her family were forced to leave their home in the capital, Phnom Penh, by the Khmer Rouge, the regime which ran the country between 1975 and 1979, under Pol Pot.  I would like to see the film and if AJ’s name brings a wider awareness of the past that’s a good thing right? Unless it is a sanistised conclusion, and an incomplete critique.  These events are rooted in wide political forces it is not just one-bad man.  If only it was, it would have been so much easier to stop.  Echoes now anyone?

I don’t know if I’ll visit this place again, but I won’t forget it. I will try to find out more.  I want to make the links between then and now. They are scarily obvious, but easy to ignore.  We may find out the hard way the answer to the question, faced with a tyrant in power, what would you do? Which side will you be on?  Did you see the danger coming, or did you celebrate because you thought change was needed and anything would be better than the present reality?

We cannot do anything about the past of course.  But we can learn from it.  How does the saying go?  Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.  I don’t know anything else about George Santayana though- hope this quote isn’t tainted too…



and then on the way home we bought a sweet pancake from a street vendor (I’ve never knowingly eaten a foodstuff so comprehensively handled by a seller before); and ate lunch at a vegetarian restaurant we stumbled on by chance; and accidentally found ourselves back at the cyclo roadside coffee stall. There we had syruppy iced chocolate, which caused us to laugh out-loud in repulsion.  Just when you think nothing can be sweeter then the last sweet thing you accidentlly consumed, you find you are once again wrong.

That’s the problem with the really dark stuff.  It’s difficult to think about, and harder still to make sense of, we want to turn away.  I know I do.   But we do so at our peril. It’s OK to peek though our fingers as we hide behind our hands. That’s understandable, but keep on peeking through we surely must!






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