S-21 Prison: Cambodia’s Auschwitz

Inside the prison

Inside the prison

Some of the photos of the skinny, beaten bodies with ribs showing are gruesome and difficult to take in. Confessions, torture tools and a room full of skulls (literally) are on display in the former detention, interrogation, inhuman torture and killing centre. Visiting the S21 Prison on the same day as the Killing Fields had perhaps been a mistake; I’m starting to feel physically nauseous and really just want it to end. But it’s absolutely right that any visitors to this region should come here and learn for themselves just what went on. Educating future generations is surely the best bet humanity has at preventing the reoccurrence of such events…

After nine months in Australia and three weeks in New Zealand, it was time to venture out of the first world for the first time. We hit up Bangkok and Koh Chang in Thailand before heading off to Cambodia to see Koh KongKoh RongSihanoukvilleSiem Reap, the Temples of Angkor and the Killing Fields.

Back in Phnom Penh, we had taken a trip to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Then that afternoon we headed back to Phnom Penh for lunch before walking a few blocks to the Tuol Sleng S-21 (‘Security 21’) Genocide Museum. Here you can actually walk in the prison cells, which were formerly a school. Blood stains are still visible on the floor and the ankle chains are still cemented in. Hundreds of photos of the dead stare at you as you pass through the rooms of the four grimy, chilling buildings.

the faces of the dead stare from the walls

The faces of the dead stare from the walls

The upper floors were used for interrogation; lower floors were full of tiny cells. Special prisoners accused of rebelling against Pol Pot’s revolution had bigger cells in Building A and were kept six to seven months, rather than the usual two to four months.

The wooden pole in the yard once used by schoolchildren was turned into an interrogation and torture machine. prisoners were hung upside down with their hands tied behind their backs and questioned until they lost consciousness, when they had their head dipped in a barrel of filthy water sued as fertiliser. This shocked the victims back into consciousness so questioning could continue. 20,000 are estimated to have died at S-21.

The compound is still surrounded by two rows of corrugated iron fence covered with dense barbed wire, among it feel like it all could have only just stopped happening. It is certainly less of a stretch of the imagination to envision the hell that occurred in S-21 than it is to imagine at the pleasant graveyard of Choeung Ek. S-21 was the most in-your-face display of suffering I had ever experienced; western museums have never seemed so raw in my experience.

The marks on the floor are chillingly uncleaned

The marks on the floor are chillingly uncleaned

Next time: Saigon, Vietnam!

JP

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5 thoughts on “S-21 Prison: Cambodia’s Auschwitz

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