Four months after the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War in 1975, they converted the Chao Ponhea Yat High School in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, into a prison and interrogation centre named Security Prison 21 (S-21), which is also known as Tuol Sleng. School rooms were transformed into cells and torture chambers, with iron bars and razor wire covering the windows to prevent escape.
The exact number of inmates held at Tuol Sleng is unknown, but it is estimated that up to 20,000 prisoners have spent time behind its bars. It was standard procedure for the inmates to be tortured by a range of methods until they name their family members and friends, who were captured and tortured. In the first few months, the majority of the prisoners held at S-21 were members of the previous LOL Nol regime, and consisted of soldiers, doctors, teachers, students, monks, engineers and government officials.
As time went on, Pol Pot and his party grew suspicious of members of their own party, which resulted in the capture of thousands of party activists and their families, who were quickly murdered on their arrival to the prison. Politicians such as Vorn Vet and Hu Nim were of the highest ranking communists to be captured, and although the official reason for their arrest was espionage, many experts suspect Pol Pot was fearful of potential coup against him.
Daily life at Tuol Sleng
When new inmates arrived at S-21, they were photographed and ordered to give a detailed account of their lives, beginning from their childhood and parents until the point of capture. Afterwards, the prisoners were stripped to their underwear and taken to their cells, devoid of all the possessions they came with. Those who were sent to the larger cell types were collectively shackled to a long iron bar, and those who went to smaller cells were chained individually to either the walls or the floor. There was no bedding of any kind in the cells, which often resulted in a tremendous amount of insect bites, as mosquito nets were also forbidden. Prisoners were not allowed to speak to one another, and when they were caught doing so, they suffered severe beatings.
Each day, the prisoners were ordered to strip for their daily inspection at 4.30am. The guards used this time to check the inmates for any items they may have procured to either aid suicide, as the facility had a growing reputation at this point for prisoners killing themselves to end the torment. The prisoners were fed on a merge diet of four spoonfuls of rice porridge and a bowl of thin soup twice a day,and were hosed down once every four days. There was no other form of washing or bathing, and this caused many skin diseases and rashes to spread through the inmates. The medical staff at Tuol Sleng were untrained, and refused to give treatment to anyone other than the prisoners who needed to be kept alive for interrogation.
Torture and Death
The average prisoner at Tuol Sleng was held for two to three months, but many high ranking officials were held longer. After three days of incarceration, the inmates were dragged from their cells to the interrogation room with hoods over their heads. The torture system was designed by the Khmer Rouge to extract as much information as possible from the prisoner, including a confession to the crime the were being accused of.
Such torture techniques involved:
- The administration of electric shocks
- Burning with hot metal instruments
- Beatings by hand and with weapons
- Cutting or stabbing with knives
- Pulling out the fingernails
- Water-boarding (Water is poured over a cloth covering the face. Gives the sensation of drowning)
- Females were often subject to being raped
Many inmates died during such torture techniques, despite this being discouraged. The Khmer Rouge needed their confessions, and wanted them alive until they got them. The interrogation was designed to gather four types of information:
- The personal background of the prisoner
- A detailed confession of the crime the prisoner was accused of, in chronological order
- Information on previous failed attempts and previous conversations
- A list of the prisoner’s family and friends, who were also deemed to be criminals or traitors. After the interrogation, the list would often contain over a hundred names.
When S-21 first opened, corpses used to be buried in a plot of land near the facility. However, after the first year, they ran out of space for their dead, and instead, prisoners were sent from Tuol Sleng to Choeung Ek extermination centre to be beaten to death by makeshift weaponry and buried in mass graves.
The vast majority of the prisoners at S-21 were Cambodians who were deemed to be a threat to the operation of the communist party, the Khmer Rouge. However, the facility did hold many foreign prisoners, including Indians, Vietnamese, French and British, as they were also deemed to be a threat to the party. All foreign prisoners were killed during their time at Tuol Sleng.
One of the last foreign prisoners to be killed was American Michael Deeds, who was captured with his friend, Christopher DeLance in 1978. He was found sailing from Singapore to Hawaii and taken into custody at Tuol Sleng where he was coerced into signing a confession just a week before the Khmer Rouge was ousted by the Vietnamese. According to the Khmer Rouge records, there were a total of 79 foreign prisoners held at S-21, but former Tuol Sleng photographer Nim Im indicates that these records are incomplete,and that the count was far higher.
The official number of staff working at Tuol Sleng prison was 1,720 people. According to the records, 300 of these were office staff, internal workforce and interrogators. The remaining 1,400 people were listed as general workers, which included maintenance teams and people who grew food for the prison. It is alleged that many of the general workers were children who were taken from the prisoners at the time of their capture.
Highest raking staff:
- Chief of Tuol Sleng – Khang Khek Leu
- Deputy Chief – Khim Vat
- Chief of Guards – Peng
- Chief of Interrogation Unit- Chan
- Main Interrogator – Pon
Documentation Unit – The staff at the Documentation Unit were responsible for typing up hand written notes written by prisoners, transcribing tape-recorded confessions and maintaining the prison files. Mug shots were taken by the staff at the Photography sub-unit upon their arrival, and after they had died whilst in detention. Thousands of these photographs have been found, although the majority of them are still missing and presumed to be destroyed.
Defence unit -The largest unit in the facility was known as the defence unit, and the vast majority of these guards were teenagers. They often struggled to maintain the strict rules imposed on them and the prisoners. They were not allowed to interact with the prisoners in any way, including speaking to them and learning their names or even beating them. The guards were not allowed to listen to the interrogations, and they were expected to obey a list of 30 regulations, which included not being able to sit down, sleep or even lean against a wall whilst on duty. Their role was to guard and walk around, carefully monitoring the prisoners. When they were caught breaking the list of regulations, they were arrested, interrogated and put to death, which created a great fear amongst the guards as well as the prisoners.
When prisoners first arrived at S-21, they were informed of the list of rules which they must follow during their incarceration. The list is as follows:
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. 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.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
*The incorrect grammar is a result of the translation provided by the Khmer Rouge
The End of the Tuol Sleng
The Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979, and a Vietnamese photographer named Ho Van Tay was the first journalist to find and publicise Tuol Sleng to the world. Van Tay and his group reportedly “followed the stench of rotting corpses” to the gates of S-21, where he took an array of photographs which would soon shock the entire world.
The building was left by the Khmer Rouge in tact, alongside extensive records and prisoner photographs taken in the photography sub-unit. The site held four main buildings, A, B,C and D, and it was building A in which the last victims were found dead.
The prison was turned into the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, which was opened to the public . The museum has quickly become a large part of Cambodian culture, as have the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Memorial). During 2010, over 27,000 Cambodians visited the museum to learn about the horrors of their country and pay homage to those who lost their lives in such horrific ways.
- Building A now displays the large cells which were left in place by the Khmer Rouge.
- Building B holds galleries of the photographs which were found in the building of prisoners, alive and dead.
- Building C displays the smaller cells which were left in place from when the prison was operational.
- Building D holds an array of Toul Sleng memorabilia and instruments of torture, such as the water board.