Rusty barbed wire stretches across the outdoor balconies of this former school in Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge operated security prison no. 21. In the museum, which opened here in 1980, the history is passed down as if in a time capsule. Although many mass graves with almost 1.4 million dead have been discovered in Cambodia, only a few larger memorial sites exist to commemorate the communist reign of terror under Pol Pot.
Credit: Dudva / CC BY-SA 3.0
The blackboard, once used to teach Cambodian students, still hangs on the wall. The Khmer Rouge later turned the school in Phnom Penh into a prison where very few inmates survived. After the Vietnamese invaded, the government established a museum here. Today this disturbing site is visited mostly by tourists.
The S-21 prison, the detention center’s official name, was established in a high school in 1976. The classrooms were converted into prison cells and a high-voltage fence was erected around the entire complex. Barbed wired was placed outside the facades to prevent prisoners from jumping down from the upper floors.
Most of the prisoners here were officers, state employees, teachers, intellectuals, and monks, but members of the Khmer Rouge who were accused of treason were also held here. A detainee’s family members were often arrested too. Many of the inmates were subjected to torture in attempt to coerce confessions from them. Afterwards they were executed. The executions initially took place on the prison grounds, but were later moved to an old cemetery outside the capital, the so-called Killing Fields. According to the museum, no more than twelve of the approximately18,000 prisoners survived.
When the Vietnamese troops invaded in January 1979, the prison staff fled. They left behind more than 4,000 written confessions and more than 6,000 photographs, which have since been declared a part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. A short time later, with the help of Vietnam, the Cambodian government opened a museum in the empty prison. It was named after an elementary school in the compound and aims to show the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. The exhibition makes no mention of Marxist ideology, which continues to be the state doctrine even after the regime change.
Several former classrooms in the first of the four buildings remain empty except for an iron bed and a shackle for chaining prisoners. This was where the Khmer Rouge held their high-ranking prisoners. The “normal” prisoners were held in the other buildings. Brick walls were erected to divide the classrooms into dozens of cells measuring one to two square meters. Prisoners were chained like cattle inside this primitive space and not allowed to make a sound. Other rooms functioned as mass cells. Some of the brick walls were later removed to make room for the exhibition. Hundreds of photographs of prisoners and people who were murdered now hang on wooden scaffolding.
In the third building, torture instruments used during interrogations are on display, such as an oversized tub for waterboarding, an apparatus for administering electric shocks, and a table where fingers were pinched to pull out prisoners’ nails. In the former schoolyard, a high beam where students practiced wrestling still exists: the Khmer Rouge used it to pull the prisoners up with their arms bend them backwards. There are three water troughs near the entrance where prisoners were dunked until they lost consciousness. The former camp rules are also on display, stating: “It is forbidden to cry during floggings or electric shocks.”
The S-21 prison was only one of 196 Khmer Rouge prisons. The Cambodian government soon lost interest in the site, a fact demonstrated by the buildings’ decay and the new construction that continues to inch closer. The museum was supported mainly by money from abroad, including from Germany. An audio guide and a multilingual website were created for predominantly international visitors. The director of the former prison, a former teacher named Kaing Guek Eav, who is referred to as “Duch,” was arrested in 1999. Thirteen years later he was sentenced to life imprisonment – the only participant in the mass murder to be convicted.
After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison
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At first glance, one might mistake the tree-lined grounds for a park – except for the signs everywhere asking visitors to be quiet. It is actually a huge mass grave that the Khmer Rouge created on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Bone fragments from the 20,000 victims are still visible in the large bomb-like craters of the “Killing Fields.”
This was originally the site of a Chinese cemetery. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge began using the abandoned site to kill thousands of people with axes, sticks or flails and bury them in mass graves. Most of the victims had been imprisoned in the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. Two or three times a month, prisoners were blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs and transported here by truck.
After the Pol Pot regime ended, residents began to notice the putrid smell of decaying corpses. Exhumations were ordered, during which the human remains of 8,895 victims were discovered. Their skulls and bones were laid out behind glass in a high tower -- a Buddhist stupa, which today forms the center of the memorial. In 2005, the memorial, which attracts some 250,000 visitors annually, was leased to a Japanese-Cambodian company for $15,000 U.S dollars a year. The company maintains and operates the memorial so that the Cambodian state does not incur any costs. It also invests in road construction and a scholarship program for needy students.
The memorial’s official name is the Choeung Ek Center for Genocide Crimes. The grounds have been designed with small pathways. An audio guide which is included in the entrance fee explains the history of the site in ten languages: This is where the trucks loaded with the prisoners arrived, this is where they were “temporarily stored” in a wooden crate, this is where loudspeakers with revolutionary chants were hung to drown out the screams of the victims during the nighttime executions. The marks in the bark of a tree are said to be from the heads of babies that the Khmer Rouge beat here. A little further on lies a mass grave with headless skeletons. True to the propaganda slogan of the time: “Khmer body, Vietnamese head,” they decapitated the victims who were accused of being Vietnamese agents.
Little of this is visible here. After the Khmer Rouge was expelled and Cambodia suffered extreme poverty, the population made use of what remained of the execution site. Even the pits of the mass graves are nearly unrecognizable. Despite the protective roofs added by the memorial, mud fills the pits during the seasonal torrential rains. When the water dissipates, the teeth, bones and clothing rise to the surface.
The more than 5,000 skulls presented on the 17 floors of the tower bear witness to the crimes committed here. They are sorted by age and gender. If you look closely, you can still see the traces of striking tools. In recent years, German scientists have helped conserve the skulls professionally. The windows are no longer open and the air inside is air-conditioned.
A small exhibition is also presented on the grounds. It shows a photo of Kaing Guek Eav, the prison director who was responsible for the brutal executions. Various striking tools used to kill the victims are also on display. A pair of black pants and shirts, adorned solely with a red scarf -- the uniform clothing of the Khmer Rouge -- hang on the wall.