It was built as a school but this place is better known as S-21, the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Between 17,000 and 20,000 people were killed here between 1975 and 1979.
Today, the site houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Musuem which serves to ensure this place, only one of around 150 execution and torture facilities, is remembered. This place and others like it killed around a couple of million people around the country while the Khmer Rouge were in control.
The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, had gotten hold of power in a brutal and complex civil war and spent their entire reign repeatedly killing off people deemed to belong to troublesome elements. Doubtless driven by fear their newfound power would crumble the same way as it came, Pol Pot’s lot wasn’t content to carefully round up selected adults that might have genuine intent, preferring instead mass imprisonment and murder of thousands.
Women, old men, young children were all thrown into prisons like Tuol Sleng before being tortured into confessing to ludicrous offences (spying for foreign powers like the United States and Russia, at that time locked in the Cold War, was a favourite). Confess or not, they would be killed anyway. Today it is considered genocide.
A school is hardly ideal for a prison, but Khmer Rouge weren’t interested in doing things right. Makeshift cells were thrown up by placing walls inside classrooms. A bit of barbed wire and some bars for the windows was all else needed to make the perfect prison. Inmates would be kept blindfolded and shackled to the ground. Up to 1,500 would be incarcerated at any given time.
In order to find new inmates for the hungry murder machine, those tortured into confessing would next be made to name innocent friends who were working with them. The friends would become the next batch of inmates. Amongst the endless stream of Cambodians, foreigners would also be rounded up and sent to Tuol Sleng.
Tuol Sleng means “poisoned hill”, or some variant thereof (several translations are available, but they all amount to much the same thing). Torture methods included burning people alive, waterboarding, electrocution, beatings and breakings of bones, and pulling out fingernails and toenails.
Early 1979 sparked the end of the line for Tuol Sleng and for the Khmer Rouge regime generally. A flood of fleeing refugees and endless border skirmishes left Vietnam extremely pissed off. Pol Pot did what he did best: He used his fear as an excuse to kill, and ordered an invasion of Vietnam because he was shitting himself that Vietnam might invade first.
It was a pretty stupid idea because not only did Vietnam repel invasion, but by the start of 1979 was marching into Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh. The Tuol Sleng prison guards fled, taking the prisoners with them. The prisoners were led into open countryside and gunned down. Vietnam ultimately defeated the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
Most of those behind the atrocities at Tuol Sleng and elsewhere have evaded justice but in the last few years, war crimes tribunals have begun taking down those that remain. While our old friend Pol Pot died in the late 90s having never truly been held accountable for his crimes, Kang Kek Iew aka Comrade Duch was the man in charge of S-21 Tuol Sleng prison and the Khmer Rouge first war criminal to be tried. He was initially given 30 years but that was later upgraded to life.
Gallery of pictures from one of history’s most infamous prisons is below: