Inside Pol Pot’s School for Torture in Phnom Penh

The climate of fear and distrust infamous prison S-21 in  Phnom Pen (Cambodia) has few equals in twentieth-century history. In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security force and turned into a prison. Over 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek to be executed; detainees who died during torture were buried in mass graves in the prison grounds. S-21 has been turned into the Tuol Sleng Museum, which serves as a testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge  was meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S.21 was photographed, sometimes before and after being tortured. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, S-21’s staff fled, leaving its last seven prisoners alive – seven men whose executions had been briefly stayed to prolong their usefulness: normally, after confession, execution followed immediately. S-21 is not well known – certainly not by the standards of Auschwitz or the Gulag Archipelago. That we’re condemned to repeat forgotten history has become so cliched a cliche that it’s almost meaningless – but S-21 was not the last of the breed. There are prisons in the People’s Republic of China where prisoners of conscience are tortured, murdered, and harvested for their organs – by the tens of thousands. There are S-21-style prisons in North Korea – the main difference is that they’re much larger: the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that the DPRK’s political prisons contain between 150,000 and 200,000 prisoners.
The prison was guarded by 50 soldiers and was surrounded by a corrugated tin fence and two barbed wire enclosures. Inside S-21, the classrooms has been converted into cells in which about 40 to 100 low-status prisoners were contained.
As a top-secret facility, the existence of S-21 was known only to prisoners, prison officials and a handful of high-ranking Khmer Rouge. When suspects were arrested, they were called to study or "summoned for consultation and were not told where they were going. Industrial workers who lived nearby referred to the as a place where “people went in but never come out.”

The old prison is a museum now, lined with the haunting black and white portraits of its inmates. Each one of them was grotesquely tortured with the tools still on display until they confessed to crimes they never committed.

Around 1.7 million people, or a fifth of the population, died in Cambodia during just over three years of Khmer Rouge rule.
The Pol Pot regime ran S-21 as a secret prison in Phnom Penh from the middle of 1975 until the end of 1978. Those who were accused of treason were brought to S-21 with their families and were photographed when they arrived. These prisoners were brutally tortured until they confessed to whatever crime they had been charged with and were executed shortly thereafter.

Khmer Rouge security officials used acid and pliers to torture inmates and disemboweled a detainee and consumed her organs, according to witness testimony given in Phnom Penh in 2015.

The methods of extracting confessions at Tuol Sleng were cruel and barbaric. Prisoners were tortured with battery powered electric shocks, searing hot metal prods, knives and other terrifying implements.

The sole purpose of S-21 was to extract confessions from political prisoners before they were taken away for execution outside of the capital near the farming village of Choeung Ek.

Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng; of these only six are known to have survived.
As hundreds of thousands of Cambodians slowly starved in the rice fields, a select number of political prisoners and their families met a terrible fate inside Khmer Rouge interrogation centers. The most famous of these centers, codenamed S-21, was located in the abandoned suburban Phnom Penh high school of Tuol Sleng, which ironically translates to "hill of the poison tree."


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