S-21 in Phnom Penh: the genocide museum

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is one of the saddest, most haunted places in the world.

Thousands of unseeing eyes stare back at you from rows and rows of black-and-white photographs – men, women and children, all victims of one of the most heinous crimes against humanity in world history: the Cambodian Genocide.

Barbed wire, S-21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

From 1975 to 1979 the evil dictator Pol Pot and his merry band of malevolent henchmen, the Khmer Rouge, ruled over Cambodia, killing more than two million people in the process. It was here, at the former Security Prison 21 (S-21) where the regime’s “political prisoners” were housed and tortured.

Of the 14,000 people who were incarcerated at S-21 (some estimate that as many as 20,000 people passed through these corridors), only one dozen survived.

Now it serves as a museum, a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.

Security Prison 21

What once was the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, a place of laughter and learning, soon became a death camp when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in 1975.

Prisoners were brought to S-21, where they were usually held for two to three months in tiny, filthy cells with not enough room to even lie down. During this time they’d be beaten and tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors.

After that, well, the lucky ones died quickly.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - better known as S-21

For the first year of the security prison’s operation, corpses were buried near the prison. One year later, when they ran out of space for all the bodies, the prisoners would be taken to the Choeung Ek extermination centre roughly 15km from Phnom Penh – the best known of Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields.

Read more about the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek here.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum still looks like a high school: five buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars and lawn-bowling pitches. The classrooms, though, are either sparsely furnish with torture equipment or have been crudely divided into cells.

Meanwhile, razor wire spans the perimeter of the former school’s grounds and barbed-wire still encloses many of its buildings – put in place to stop the prisoners of S-21 from escaping or from leaping to their deaths.

Security Prison 21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Like the prisoners who were brought here, one of the first things visitors to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum will notice are the security prison’s rules, the ten edicts that governed life in the concentration camp.

They are:

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.

Even more terrifying are the photographs by Ho Van Tay, the combat photographer who was among the Vietnamese soldiers that liberated the Cambodian prison in 1979. These gristly images, which hang in the rooms where they were taken, show the last torture victims of S-21 exactly as they were discovered.

One of the torture chambers at S-21 in Phnom Penh

The many mugshots of S-21’s victims, however, were taken by the Khmer Rouge themselves.

The regime kept extensive records of the atrocities committed at Security Prison 21 in Phnom Penh. The thousands of black-and-white portraits taken of prisoners as they arrived now line several of the rooms at the genocide museum.

Cabinets are filled with human skulls and others are filled with the clothes of the former concentration-camp’s prisoners – including the tiny outfits once worn by children.

Mugshots of the S-21 victims, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

As a memorial for its victims, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is remarkable in its unflinching honestly. It paints a small yet visceral insight into hell on earth.

Visitors to Cambodia and Phnom Penh would do well to make a trip to S-21, if only to pay a small tribute to the people who lost their lives during the dark days of the Cambodian Genocide.

Check out these super-handy Cambodian travel tips.

About Simon Petersen 285 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.

2 Comments

  1. Great report on an important place in history. One of the best things about traveling besides seeing the attractions and beautiful locations is learning about a places history, its people and the history of what happened there in the past.

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