S-21(Genocide Museum)

S-21(Genocide Museum)

S-21 and Choeng Ek Killing Fields: Facing death

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Prisoner’s bed at S-21, Cambodia
Tuol Svay Pray High School sits on a dusty road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived. Not only did the Khmer Rouge carefully transcribe the prisoners’ interrogations; they also carefully photographed the vast majority of the inmates and created an astonishing photographic archive. Each of the almost 6,000 S-21 portraits that have been recovered tells a story shock, resignation, confusion, defiance and horror. Although the most gruesome images to come out of Cambodia were those of the mass graves, the most haunting were the portraits taken by the Khmer Rouge at S-21.Today, S-21 Prison is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Inside the gates, it looks like any high school; five buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars, green lawns and lawn-bowling pitches. The ground-floor classrooms in one building have been left to appear as they were in 1977. The spartan interrogation rooms are furnished with only a school desk-and-chair set that faces a steel bed frame with shackles at each end. On the far wall are the grisly photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted the two Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January of 1979.

In another building the walls are papered with thousands of S-21 portraits. At first glance, the photograph of a shirtless young man appears typical of the prison photos. Closer inspection reveals that the number tag on his chest has been safety pinned to his pectoral muscle. With a bruised face and a pad-locked chain around his neck, a boy stands with his arms at his sides and looks straight into the camera. A mother with her baby in her arms stares into the camera with a look of indignant resignation. The photographs and confessions were collected in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out

Many of the questions asked by S-21 interrogators revolved around what the historian David Chandler has described as “Stalinist” charges of sedition–insurrection against lawful authority. Khmer Rouge torture manuals discouraged torture that ended with death, or what they described as “a loss of mastery.” This was discussed at length in a torturer’s manual found at S-21:

Our experience in the past has been that our interrogators for the most part tended to fall on the torture side…. However, we must nevertheless strive to do politics to get them always and absolutely to confess to us. Only once we have pressured them politically, only when we have put them in a corner politically and have gotten them to confess will torture become productive.


Duch, Chief of S-21: The Prison of no escape

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Duch at the tribunal court, Cambodia
The head of S-21 Prison was Kang Kech Ieu, better known as Brother Duch. The former schoolteacher ran a tight ship where both guards and inmates feared for their lives. In a memo from a meeting, Duch told an interrogator, “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?” The guards, interrogators and other prison staff at S-21 were between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. These self-righteous teens served as the praetorian guards of the Khmer Rouge revolution. One of the most important members of the S-21 staff was a Chinese-trained young photographer named Nhem En, who served as a key link in the prison’s documentation system. He did not defect from the Khmer Rouge until 1997 and I was able to interview him twice in 1998 and twice more in March 2000. A Khmer Rouge hard-liner for more than 26 years, even today Nhem En clings to the belief that without the Khmer Rouge Cambodia would have become a Vietnamese colony: “1979 to 1990, the Khmer Rouge were afraid of Vietnamese colonialism. This is why they fought back.”

S-21’s photographer

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Nhem En, Khmer Rouge’s Photographer at S-21
Today, En lives in northwest Cambodia with his family and hopes to one day become a provincial governor. He was born in 1961, and joined the Khmer Rouge, then known as the National Front, in 1971. He was part of the Artistic Childrens’ Liberation Troupe, which danced and sang for visiting delegations of leaders. At the same time, En served as a rearguard soldier for the National Front. His youth group was taught how to use automatic weapons, and at the age of 12 En was issued his first gun. By 1973, he carried weapons and food to frontline soldiers fighting pitched battles against the army of Lon Nol. The National Front was renamed the Khmer Rouge by King Norodom Sihanouk, and by 1975 they controlled much of the country. Now a battle-proven soldier, En was promoted to unit leader and on April 17, 1975, he and his men heard over the radio that Phnom Penh had fallen. As Nhem En and the other Khmer Rouge soldiers approached the capital, they saw the city’s residents crowding along Route 5. “They looked different from us,” he recalled. “We always wore black uniforms, and they wore many different colors”.  Click here to learn more from www.fathom.com

Choeng Ek Killing Fields:Hell on earth

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Choeng Ek Killing Fields, Cambodia

in order to know the how prisoners were ruthlessly killed at Cheung Ek by the horrible Ultra Communist Khmer Rouge Regime, the structure of the security system of the must be understood. More importantly, one must understand the chain of command established by the blood thirsty leaders, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Son Sen, and Khiev Sam Phan

The  Democratic of Kampuchea was led by Pol Pot, a former schoolteacher. The killing machine of S-21 was a secret prison for torturing, interrogating, and depriving those who were accused of illegal activities and accused of being traitors. The Khmer Rouge acted like savage animals with no conscience as they preyed upon the innocent and naive citizens. The Khmer Rouge had turned the peaceful and beautiful Cheung Ek village into the infamous and miserable killing fields.  The Pol Pot regime slaughtered people in the thousands without mercy and buried them in mass graves. No matter how much visitors have read or been told about the Khmer Rouge brutality and the number of people killed all visitors shall understand the full process of how the tens of thousands prisoners were executed here. More importantly, visitors can learn about the chain of command established by Pol Pot.

Given the way that the Ultra Khmer Rouge Regime was organized, a decision for murder was most likely ordered by ‘Brother Number 01 himself, Pol Pot.  Everything had to meet with his approval, even though there is no written proof. However, Son Sen, who was responsible for National Security and Defense and Ducha commandant at S-21, were directly responsible for killing the prisoners at S-21 and Cheung Ek Killing Field and written proof is available. At S-21 there were many documents routed to the party center and they all passed through Son Sen’s hands. Dozens of memoranda addressed to him by Duch have survived. Duch’s queries and annotations have appeared on the prisoners’ confessions, often in red ink. More often, Duch denigrated what the prisoners confessed and suggested beatings and tortures to unearth truth that he thought the prisoners were hiding. These documents display how the Upper Brothers, Son Sen and Duch, were responsible for the thousands of prisoners’ murders at S-21 and Cheung Ek.

After getting an instruction to kill from the Central Committee of  the regime through Son Sen, Duch ordered his deputy, Hor, to produce a “must smash” list .

Taking orders from Hor, and Suon Thy who were in charge of the documentary unit, the list was prepared. The list was submitted to Duch for his signature. Then, the signed list was sent to Peng, the head of Defense unit, who seems to have been demoted in 1978 when his duties were taken by Hyu. Peng had the keys to all of the cells in the S-21 prison. Based on the list, Peng ordered the guards to remove the “must smash” prisoners to be killed.

The Important and special prisoners like Keo Meas ( a veteran revolutionary), Ney Saran ( Secretary of Agriculture), Hu Nim ( Minister of Information), Kuy Thuon ( Secretary of Northern Zone), Cheng An (Deputy Minister of Industry), Von Veth ( Deputy prime Minister), and foreigners were killed and buried at the S-21 prison. As for foreigners including Canadians, Americans, Australians and British, guards were  ordered to kill them and to burn their dead bodies so that no bones were left (Nic Dunlop 2005:275).

The majority of the victims were trucked out to Choeung Ek, at about 8 or 9 o’clock PM, to be killed. The guards took the prisoners from their cells to the main gate where a large truck waited and told them that they were being transferred to another place. This lie was created to prevent the prisoners from crying, refusing to go or from escaping.  In order to be well prepared for execution, a messenger from the defense unit was sent to the Choeung Ek Killing Field in advance to inform a permanent team about the number of the prisoners to be killed that day. Usually, the messenger went to the Killing Field by motorcycle in the mornings. To ensure that a top secret was kept and also that the execution was carried out properly, Duch, Peng, and Huy were requested to attend by Son Sen, the Minister in charge of defense and security. Often times, Duch sat smoking on a mat near the pit to supervise the executions and to insure their murderous plans.

The number of prisoners executed at Choeung Ek on a daily basis varied from a few dozen to over three hundred. The latter figure was recorded in May, 1978 at the height of the pursuits in the Eastern Zone. On a monthly basis two or three trucks would go from S-21 to Choeung Ek. Each truck held three or four guards and twenty to thirty frightened, silent prisoners. When the trucks arrived at the site, two guards seated with prisoners jumped from the canvas and took prisoners down, shoved them into a small building.  The building was constructed from wood with a galvanized steel roof and its walls were built with two layers of flat wood to darken the room and also to prevent prisoners seeing each other. Then, with the electricity light supplied by a generator , Peng or Huy the heads of capturers subunit, verified prisoners’ names against a “must-smash” list prepared by the head of documentation unit, Suos Thy.  This list ensured that no one prisoner was missed.  Prisoners were led in small groups to ditches and pits that were dug in advance by another team stationed permanently at the site.

They were told to kneel down 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 too expensive. 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” ( Dunlop 2005:273)

Him Huy, who took the prisoners to be killed at Choeung Ek 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… ” (David Chandler 1999:140).

Soon after prisoners were executed, the head of inspectors made sure that no one was alive. According to a witness who came to Cheung Ek just 2 days after liberation day, January 7th, 1979, said thatat the site there was a small hut with chemical substances. He guessed that executioners scattered these substances over the dead bodies of the victims after execution. This action might have served two purposes: first, to eliminate the stench from the dead bodies which could potentially raise suspicion among people working near the Killing Fields and secondly, the chemicals would have killed off victims who were buried alive. Unfortunately, these poisonous substances were lost in 1979.

Kong San, an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier of 703 division, recalled at that time he had grown rice near Cheung Ek and when the wind blew strongly sometimes he smelt a stench. He thought the smell was just the stench of decomposing dead pets. But after the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, he found out that Choeung Ek was a Killing Field (From winner to self- destruction 2000: 142).

At the end, when the execution was completely finished, the killers washed their body and killing tools in a ditch near the site. The list at Choeung Ek was submitted to Suos Thy, to double-check that no prisoners were missed.

Source: http://www.killingfieldsmuseum.com/s21-victims.html

One Response to “S-21(Genocide Museum)”

  1. Khmer music says:

    I think the international Khmer Rouge tribunal is a farce at best. There is no way that trying five surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership will bring either justice or closure to the millions of innocent victims who have perished or are still reeling from their genocidal rule. I think the focus should be on education and raising awareness so that similar atrocities do not happen again.

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