Understanding Tragedy: A Visit to Khmer Rouge Prison S-21

*Graphic content warning*

So far, most of our sightseeing has been quite lighthearted. We’ve seen pandas and monkeys, temples and statues, and even a couple of palaces. It’s been enjoyable and culturally enlightening. However, one of our main sightseeing goals as we came to Cambodia was to focus on the horrendous activities of the Khmer Rouge.

The leaders of the Khmer Rouge, or the Cambodian Communist Party, instigated a terrible genocide, ultimately killing 3 million of Cambodia’s then 8 million population. I’ll spare you the history details, but if you want them, see the Wikipedia page.  For now, I’ll just tell you about our experiences in the main Khmer Rouge prison—S-21.

A view of S-21 from the top floor of Building D

As a brief introduction, S-21 used to be a high school, but was taken over by the KR and used as a prison. Classrooms were either divided into small individual cells where prisoners were held, used as pens for up to 70 people all chained together by iron shackles around the ankles, or as interrogation/torture chambers. Prisoners were accused of being a danger to the state and tortured until they confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, or died.  For more information, see here.

S-21 is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, open to the public for a mere $2. The rooms are open as well, and visitors can walk the halls where murderers and their victims lived and died.

As Ricky and I entered the grounds, I immediately felt a sort of heaviness, as if the air was just a little thicker here.  I wondered if I could do this. I had heard about how graphic and harsh some of the displays could be. But we pressed on.

The first room we entered housed skulls in glass cases, with descriptions of the injuries showing how the person died, how old they were, and what sex they were. More skulls and bones lined the walls.  I wondered again if I would be able go through with this.

Skulls and bone fragments fill the room.

Next, there were displays of the torture items used.  Popular forms of torture were removing the fingernails or teeth with pliers and waterboarding. Graphic paintings showed how the tortures were done.

Waterboard used for torture. The watering can on the right was used to pour water on the victims' faces.
Shackles used to hold prisoners together by the ankles in one large classroom.

The rest of the first and second buildings featured displays both victims and perpetrators.  Mugshots of victims that were taken when they arrived covered walls of several classrooms.  When I saw them, I thought of the skulls at the beginning and I was reminded that those skulls were these people, and these people were dead. It was a very sad feeling that washed over me as I looked into these people’s faces. 

Photos of victims, taken by their captors when they arrived at S-21

  But their own expressions were more complex. There were some faces that showed sadness, yes, but even more that showed fear, anger, defiance, confusion, hatred. But even worse were the blank stares of those who felt nothing, as if they expected nothing more or less than what was happening, as if they were resigned to their fate. 

  It made me wonder what kind of expression I would have on my face. Would I be strong enough to feel anything more than simple acquiescence to injustice?

Along with pictures of the living, there were also pictures of the dead, of those who were starved, beaten, and tortured. They had fallen victim to the injustices of their own people.

In one display, photos of the surviving leaders that were arrested in 2007 are accompanied by their personal biographies, a few statements about their involvement, and the crimes they are charged with. They are all defended by both Cambodian and western lawyers (Dutch, French, British, American). Most, with the exception of "Duch," the leading officer in charge of S-21, were unapologetic, often saying that they had no knowledge of the atrocities going on in S-21, or even that it existed.

The second to last building we visited, building B, was the home of the small celled rooms. They were made by constructing shoddy brick walls to partition areas of about 3 feet by 8 feet. As we looked in the cells, we saw that bloodstains still remained on the floor. I could only imagine the horrors that took place here, in these small dirty cells, their occupants chained to the floor by rusty shackles. 

A classroom, divided into individual cells.

A cell with blood on the floor.

Building A, our last stop, was the main torture center and remained nearly unchanged. Each room contained a bare bed frame and torture elements. Some had chairs where the interrogators would sit and question the victims. On the walls were photos of those found dead when the horrors of S-21 were discovered. Each room contained bloodstains and a sense of overwhelming sadness and we decided it was time to go.

Before we left, however, we were stopped by an old man selling books. As we looked closer, we saw that the sign below him said that he was a survivor of S-21. He was a tiny old man, named Bou Meng, and of course I bought his book.

Bou Meng, third from the right, is one of the 7 survivors of S-21

Bou Meng and his autobiography, which he signed for me.

Ricky and I left the museum silently, pondering what we had just seen. We both felt the weight of what had happened here and chatted vaguely about justice and fairness. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole thing, the nightmare of what happened there, and after our visit to the Killing Fields today (Ricky will tell you more about that soon) I don’t know if I’m closer or further away from understanding anything about it.   


  1. What a great blog entry, Talia. It was very touching, and as these things tend to do, make me very contemplative for the sorry state of humanity as a whole.

    It seems to me that history is largely a recounting of how terrible people can be toward each other. Every people, every culture, every major religion, every nation has something dark and evil in its history. We want to pretend like such things died out in the middle ages, or at the latest, with slavery in the 19th century, and we pretend that events such as the German's treatment of Jews are anomalies. But then we are forced to admit that evil goes on all around us, and is equally sanctioned by pretty much everyone, as long as they can rationalize a division between "them" and "us". As long as the bad stuff happens to "them" for the supposed benefit of "us", it is deemed okay somehow. So what America did to the Japanese-Americans in WW2, or to Japan itself, or what the Japanese did to the Koreans and the Chinese, and what the Vietnamese did to their own people, and what the Chinese communists did to their own people, and what the Americans are doing to Mideast peoples right now with drones, and the constant tribal/ethnic warfare in eastern Europe, or Ireland, etc., etc., are all rationalized as okay because we have learned through millennia to see the world through a lens of "us" versus "them."

    Until we give up that "us" vs. "them" mindset, things like S-21 will continue to exist. It is very sad and depressing, because the change that needs to take place is huge and is a massive change that needs to happen in the hearts of every man, woman, and child, especially those who feel like they have been wronged by "them," whoever "they" are.

    We must learn to forgive. We must learn to view each other as individuals. Collectivism is a dangerous and insidious cancer that affects the whole of humanity, allowing us to rationalize killing a few thousand brown people here or there if we think it will keep Americans safe, or obliterating a few hundred villages here or there if it will advance some political goal, or to allow for the mass rape and killing of entire tribes or villages as punishment for what "they" did previously.

    We have to learn to see each individual as an individual, with his or her own dreams, strengths, weaknesses, and ambitions. If the Khmer Rouge soldiers or the Nazi soldiers or the American WW2 bomber pilots stopped for a moment and thought of their targets as individual people, each with a family and a homes, there is no way they could herd anyone into a torture chamber, a gas chamber, or drop an atomic bomb on those individual families and homes. It is only when we view the world through the dangerous lens of collectivism that people can feel okay about doing such things.

    Learn to love, and then love freely. That is the only way to prevent another S-21, another Hiroshima, another Dresden, another Nanking, another Trail of Tears, another Auschwitz, etc. It has to start with us, and we have to be brave enough to reject collectivism wherever we encounter it, if we want to be agents of change.

    1. Thank you, Ron, for your very thoughtful comment. I had a lot of those thoughts running through my head the last couple of days. Too often we forget about people in favor of a so-called "cause." When we can finally see each person as a human being, a person who loves and fears and desires, we can hopefully be able to thrive for peace. However, as we learned here, the fear for one's own life often overrides the need to save another's; many of the KR soldiers were forced to join and torture/kill because they would have been killed had they refused.

      It is a sad, sorry place we live in sometimes.

  2. When did this happen? it is insane to of that there could be such an awful genocide like this that most people in the world know absolutely nothing about. why isn't this story well known ? did anyone step in to help? so sad.

  3. The school was open from 1976-1979, really not all that long ago. It was a time of lots of rebellions, and eventually the Khmer Rouge was overthrown. Pol Pot, the leader, lived out the rest of his days just fine. The other leaders were arrested in 2007 and are standing trial for crimes against humanity. It is a very sad thing that happened there, and I think more people should know about it.


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