I had a penchant for history during my high school years. Dark history, to be precise. I learnt a great deal about the Final Solution to the Jewish Question and the Great Purge in Russia. I also read mini biographies of Stalin, Hitler and Mao from cover-to-cover and watched old films on World War II. Despite my fascination for these bygone narratives, none captivated me more than the history of Khmer Rouge in Democratic Kampuchea. That hit home for me simply because of geographical reasons— the nightmare happened not too long ago and took place somewhere closer to my homeland.
I spent my afternoons reading up on Pol Pot and his methodical ways in recruiting children from rural areas and training them to become ruthless cadres. I also watched The Killing Fields a number of times that year. My preoccupation with the history of Khmer Rouge remained until I went to college. I studied films, particularly those of historic importance. By that time, I harbored an interest in Khmer Rouge’s principal death camp known as S21. Similar to the Nazi regime, the Khmer Rouge was systematic with its handling of internal affairs. Each prisoner of S21 was carefully photographed before interrogation of their crimes began.
I wrote a paper for my modern arts course, arguing how the photographic archives of the prisoners were of artistic merit. I received a distinction for my research but in hindsight, the arguments I made meant nothing. It took me fourteen years until I got the chance to be here and it took me that long to realize how insignificant my thesis was. I couldn’t have known much if I hadn’t inspected the photographs at the site of torture. And there was certainly no art in these deaths.
N and I arrived at S21 early Tuesday morning with our guide Theng. We criss-crossed the dusty, narrow roads towards the outskirts of Phnom Penh and reached the site in a few minutes time. Like many things in the Cambodian capital, the prison appeared to be ordinary. Five-block buildings of modern Bauhaus sensibilities stood in the middle of an intersection overcrowded with French colonial shophouses. The place used to be Tuol Svay Pray High School back in the 1960s and its external revealed just that: a grassy courtyard for students to congregate, the rows of identical-looking classrooms and a rusty set of swings with missing seats.
But as soon as we stepped in closer, we noticed the barb wire fence that trailed throughout the walls that separate the buildings from the outside world. Near the first block lay the graves of the fourteen inmates found dead at the time when the prison was first discovered in early 1979. The sight of this forced us to be aware of the horrors behind such a commonplace façade. This was one of the deadliest sites in history— a death camp to torture and “smash” anyone, from the intellectuals to the top officials of Khmer Rouge, who had allegedly broken Angkar’s laws.
Theng took us to the ground-floor classrooms in the first block where the high-ranking officers within Khmer Rouge were brought in for interrogations. He labeled them as “five-star cells.” Each of the classrooms was spacious yet sparse— there were no chalkboards, books nor rows of chair or tables to be found. Instead, a steel bed frame stood in the middle of each room. Some of the ramshackle frames had long iron bars and ammunition boxes, all aged and corroded. The iron bars were used to chain the feet of the prisoners to the frame while the boxes served as a container for excrement.
Gracing the dilapidated orange walls were gruesome photographs of decomposing bodies manacled onto the frames. Splashes of blood covered the floor beneath them. The scene was captured vividly by the Vietnamese photojournalists who came upon the prison by chance. A few of the classrooms were furnished with a school desk-and-chair facing the bed. These were the interrogation rooms, where the inmates were forced to confess fictional crimes evolving either the KGB or CIA. This alone could take several months. They had to name the other people that might be involved in similar offenses. To avoid further torture, the inmates ended up listing their family and friends. This resulted in a domino effect: those who were named would be captured and tortured just the same.
The other floors were reserved for lower-ranking prisoners. They were held in larger classrooms, all forty of them or more, shackled to one another with long pieces of iron bar. None was allowed to move or make a rattling noise out of those chains. Throughout the days and nights, they would be lying on their backs on the cold linoleum floor in silence with little to eat and drink. Certain cells were meant for the women together with their children. They mostly knew nothing of the misconducts they were accused of; their only crime was their roles as wives to the male prisoners and the mothers of their offspring. Their children’s lives were not spared either. They were taken away from their mothers and tortured just the same in the interrogation rooms. By nighttime, a handful of them would be taken to the Killing Fields to meet their end.
The entire atmosphere of the classrooms was unnerving as Theng narrated the kinds of torture the prisoners had to endure. The old walls, especially, seemed to beckon on their own to tell us what they witnessed during the regime. I couldn’t linger in a room for too long without feeling overwhelmed by the sheer pain that others had gone through within the space. I couldn’t help but to imagine the place as it was in its infancy— a place where young Khmer minds gathered to learn and elevate themselves through knowledge, and what it eventually became, a place where the innocent were put to the lowest pits of humanity.
Some of the cells had windows that were shut tight. Darkness pervaded throughout the confinement, leaving no crack of daylight even during mid-day. Theng told us that a few prisoners had committed suicide to end the agony. An inmate threw herself off the balcony and another shot himself with a cadre’s gun. Ever since then, the Khmer Rouge took extra measures by installing barbed wire along the balconies to prevent anyone from taking the short cut to death.
We moved to the next block where the halls were opened to the crowd and the walls coated with fresh white paint. Thousands of black-and-white photographs of the prisoners lined these walls. This was yet another bleak spectacle altogether. Unlike the Killing Fields where faceless human skulls were stacked upon one another, these photographs reveal their identities the moment before they were senselessly abused.
Young males, whose faces were covered in blood and bruises stared into the lens, with a look of fear or resignation. An exhaustive number of girls, some bearing the hairstyle of the day with 70s-style trimmed eyebrows, looked into the cameras as fear encroaches upon their beautiful faces. Distraught mothers were forced to look straight ahead with crying babies in their arms. What shattered my heart the most were the photographs of children and even toddlers who appeared unassuming to what awaits them once the shutter clicks.
In the very same room, we came upon Vann Nath’s paintings once again. The images showed Khmer Rouge’s modus operandi when it comes to torture. One of the paintings exposed the beatings and electric shocks that prisoners had to withstand during interrogation. Some of the prisoners were hung upside down from the swings in the courtyard with their heads ducked into barrels of water. There were accounts of females who were brutally raped and had their nipples removed from their chests. Others were skinned alive and brought out to the courtyard like meat on sticks. The survivors also mentioned how the interrogators resort to pulling out finger and toenails of the prisoners and pouring alcohol on the wounds if confessions were not made.
Theng brought us to the block where they kept more “difficult” prisoners, or namely those who refused to cooperate with the interrogators into giving in to their crimes. He named this block the “one-star hotel.” This was the darkest chamber, in my opinion, where rows of gauchely bricked dividers were built within the classrooms to form smaller cells. Occasionally, we saw a piece of iron rod or tin bowl used to place watery rice for the inmates to eat. The ceilings bore cracks from old age and the floor showed traces of dried blood.
For the claustrophobic among us, this was an ultimate nightmare. Once the windows were shut, the air instantly became tight, thus making it difficult for one to breathe. However, this was only the beginning. The next classroom bore even tinier cells made out of wood. So tiny that they resembled makeshift coffins. The air in these cells was thick with dust from all that wood. As we ventured inside one of them, N had trouble breathing. There was less light on this floor; the cells were all anchored in blackness.
We later met Chum Mey, a former inmate of S21, at the exit. Out of the many thousands who were imprisoned, he was one of the seven who survived. He was a mechanic in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over the administration and in due course, ended up in S21 for reasons unknown. His life was spared because he was adept at repairing machines, a skill deemed important among the mostly illiterate Khmer Rouge cadres. I saw him sitting in the school’s compound— the actual site that almost took his life— bowing to and greeting the many visitors. .
I wasn’t sure if he had found peace after such an ordeal or if revisiting the past was his way of dealing with the pain. He looked frail and possibly in his seventies if not more. In front of him were copies of the autobiographical book he recently penned, Survivor. I recognized him from Rithy Pahn’s The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (a powerful one, I'd highly recommend it) among other documentaries and felt honored to see the man in person. He spoke no English but I told him what a brave man he was and asked Theng to translate it for him. Upon hearing this, he immediately pressed his palms together and responded with a gracious smile. I was glad to see that he could still do so.