We are at S-21 Museum, the high school converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and used as an interrogation, torture, and execution center until 1979. Of the 14,000 who were held here, only 7 survived. It was one of over 150 execution centers during that era. Between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians died, about one quarter of the population.
Exhibits with photographs of prisoners.
Exhibits – skulls
I look at cells in the prison. Prisoners received 4 spoonfuls of rice plus a watery soup with leaves each day. Cells were hosed down every four days, Prisoners were shackled in their cells and slept without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets.
Administrators attempted to keep prisoners alive while torturing them until they confessed to crimes.
Prisoners typically were held in S-21 for 2-3 months where they were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, seared with metal instruments, fingernails pulled out, water boarded, hung in painful positions, head submerged in sewer water. Prisoners were forced to confess to espionage for the CIA, KGB, or Vietnamese and to name friends, family, and associates who were then arrested and tortured. All were executed.
Prisoners were not allowed to talk with each other. Most were killed at the Choeung Ek execution center — 15 km from Phnom Penh. Guards who worked at S-21 were terrified of making a mistake and being incarcerated and executed as a result.
Guards feared for their lives.
S-21 consists of five buildings — with some floors used for individual cells, some areas set aside for torture, and large rooms for shackling large numbers of prisoners.
During the early months of S-21, members of the previous government were arrested, tortured, and executed. Then soldiers, government workers, academics, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, and engineers were arrested. Later the focus was directed to the Khmer Rouge ranks — party activists, soldiers, officials were arrested. Some of the highest ranking Communist politicians (possible rivals of Pol Pot) were taken to S-21, tortured, and executed.
Torture room with photograph of body. Prisoners were often photographed after being tortured.
One of the seven survivors, he offers a book for sale. Survivors revealed special artistic or photographic ability to their captors.
We take a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. It is strange to leave the prison and to ponder what occurred there.
Genocide occurs periodically among humans. When you meditate, you will experience memories of difficult events. Accepting these images as memories helps you come to terms with these memories. S-21, like individual traumatic events, is outside normal human experience.
The young soldiers within the Khmer Rouge were fighting to overthrow a corrupt, incompetent regime, associated with the colonial era. Their leaders did not plan to engage in genocide but experienced years of isolation in the jungles and wished to establish a new social order.
Humans have special capacities to accept ideologies that allow authoritarian leadership. Humans tend to obey authority and to conform to social norms. Humans generally obey without thinking — the S-21 museum is a warning to stay aware. Mainstream religious ideologies tend to justify authority — and religions often support war and torture.
You can wake up to what is inside through meditation. Don’t be a sheep.