Take a moment at the S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Warning – Explicit material. The S21 prison; the horror prison of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.

The history in a nutshell

In 1970, a civil war started in Cambodia. The communist opposition was referred to as: “red Cambodians” – the Khmer Rouge. In that period, a man within the Khmer Rouge rose and became their leader, he was known as: Pol Pot. Pol Pot fueled the idea of divisiveness among the Cambodian people i.e. the ‘common man’ and the ‘elite’. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge ‘evacuated’ the citizens of Phnom Phen to make them work in rice fields, leaving Phnom Penh deserted. In May 1976, the doors of the S-21 prison were opened with a man called: “Duch” to lead the prison. Unexpectedly, he was a math professor (and should thus be an ‘elite’), but he was Khmer Rouge and was feared for his dark mind. Anyone who for any reason could be a potential threat to Pol Pot’s regime was marked an enemy of the Khmer Rouge. Innocent people were taken to the prison under the assumption that they formed a threat.

The prison guards were young adolescent Cambodians, ‘brainwashed’ into believing that the prisoners were non-humans, justifying the horrific acts they were to perform on the prisoners. What also weighed in was, in case the staff would not obey, the same faith as the prisoners would await them. In 1977 a new wave of prisoners were brought to S-21: the intellectuals. Most were accused of being a traitor or spy and working together with the KGB (Russia), the CIA (USA) or the Vietnamese. The interrogations were so brutal that most people confessed to a crime they did not commit and would even incriminate other innocent persons.

After confession, the prisoners were send out to be ‘re-educated’. However, instead of being re-educated, they were being send to a place now called: ‘the killing fields’ to be ‘smashed’ – a Khmer Rouge euphemism for being killed. In December 1978, the Vietnamese invaded the land and were closing in on the S-21 prison. Prison leader Duch was ordered to smash all prisoners and evacuate the premises, and so he did. Approximately 1/5 th of the country’s population died under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. That is 1,700,000 persons.

The site

When you enter S-21, it has the look and feel of a school building, however, it has a more gruesome history. The rooms on the ground floor has been left more or less intact. That way, visitors get an idea of the horrific acts that took place there.

Picture: one of the ground floor rooms where prisoners were interrogated (tortured).

The open area of the site still displays the attributes that were, among others, used to kill, but mainly torture people.

Picture: the S-21 prison yard were people were hung upside down, to nearly drown in the water bowls

For some reason, all prisoners were photographed. Their pictures currently are displayed in the rooms at the upper floors of the prison. You will get a sense of the horror the people must have endured and a sense of the magnitude of the killings. It is said that of the 14,000 prisoners that went in to the prison, only 7 survived.

Visiting this place will certainly get to you and you will be left wondering how people can be so cruel to one another. Upon the S-21 evacuation, the documentation was left, leaving solid proof of the genocide that had taken place. Up to now, it is said that no one has ever been punished for their crimes.

For more background information on what happened in the S-21 prison and at the killing fields, we refer to the official website of the killing fields. Interested to read more? Click here. Interested to read how to get to the S-21 prison? Read along.

How to get there

The S-21 prison is located relatively close to the killing fields. Consequently, both sites can be visited at the same day, without being rushed. From Phnom Penh center, you can either take a taxi or a Tuk-Tuk. If you go by Tuk-Tuk, it is advised to bring a scarf to cover your mouth as some roads are quite dusty. Alternatively, a Hop on hop off- bus circles Phnom Penh, and should stop at both sites. The cost for the bus should be around 15 USD. To visit the hop on hop off-bus website for Phnom Penh, click here.

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