Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cambodia - Part 2 "S21, the Khmer Killing machine"

After the Killing fields I went to S21. I really didn't know what to expect and I wasn't prepared for what I saw there.

"The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979." Wikipedia.

Its hard to describe this place as it is essentially just three old dilapidated buildings. Its the feeling you get there that really reveals its past to you. When you enter the rooms some of the previous government officials were held, tortured and murdered in there is an atmosphere of complete despair, dread and horror. The rooms still have the taint of what happened in them.

S21 and The killing fields - Images by Darragh Mason Field

The rooms are just the same as when they held prisoners. A striped down bed with a leg shackle. On the wall is a single photo, a picture taken by the Ho Van Tay, a Vietnamese combat photographer of the human remains found there.

Some of the images beyond horrific. One poor man had literally had his entire face cut off. All done to extract confessions to non existent crimes against the state.

"Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months. However, several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer. Within two or three days after they were brought to S-21, all prisoners were taken for interrogation[1]. The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique."

The second buildings ground floor is made up of galleries of the mug shots taken of prisoners as they arrived. The age span was from about seven years of age to the elderly. As people were tortured they we're encouraged to name their families as conspirators which many did under extreme duress. Even confessing to the most outlandish stories.

"Typical confessions ran into thousands of words in which the prisoner would interweave true events in their lives with imaginary accounts of their espionage activities for the CIA, the KGB, or Vietnam. The confession of Hu Nim ended with the words "I am not a human being, I'm an animal". A young Englishman named John Dawson Dewhirst who was arrested in August 1978 claimed to have joined the CIA at age 12 upon his father receiving a substantial bribe from a work colleague, also an agent. Physical torture was combined with sleep deprivation and deliberate neglect of the prisoners. The torture implements are on display in the museum. The vast majority of prisoners were innocent of the charges against them and their confessions produced by torture."

The photos themselves show a spectrum of reactions to the individuals arrival at S21. Some are terrified, some in shock and some totally stunned.

The prisoners where held in make shift cells crudely built into old class rooms. The front of this building was covered in a grid of barbed wire to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

"In 1979 Ho Van Tay, a Vietnamese combat photographer, was the first media person to document Tuol Sleng to the world. Van Tay and his colleagues followed the stench of rotting corpses to the gates of Tuol Sleng. The photos of Van Tay documenting what he saw when he entered the site are exhibited in Tuol Sleng today.

The Khmer Rouge required that the prison staff made a detailed dossier for each prisoner. Included in the documentation was a photograph. Since the original negatives and photographs were separated from the dossiers in the 1979-1980 period, most of the photographs remain anonymous today."

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