In 1975, the Khmer Rouge — one of the most lethal regimes of the 20th century — took over Cambodia. Led by Pol Pot, the regime forced the Cambodian people to work on collective farms and labor projects, as a form of agrarian communism. Sympathetic to the peasants, they killed all who they deemed to be ‘New People,’ or those who lived in the city at the time of their take over.
Their motto to these New People was:
Anyone in connection to the former government, teachers, intellectuals, anyone with glasses, homosexuals, or people of mixed descent were ‘purged’ from the new agrarian communities.
At the time of the takeover, the Tuol Svay Prey High Schoo located in Phnom Penh was invaded by Pol Pot’s security forces and converted into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country, and more than 17,000 of the prisoners held there were exterminated at the nearby, infamous, ‘Killing Fields’.
With the reign of the Khmer Rouge now in the past, S-21 has been turned into the Tuol Sleng Museum, which serves as a testament to, and constant reminder of, their crimes.
Much like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their barbaric acts. They took pictures of every prisoner that passed through the walls of S-21, and on one floor of the school; rooms are filled with these eerie black and white photos. The faces are haunting. Some look broken and some even smile, though their eyes reflect fear. But, it is those that look defiant, chins jutted out that I remember best because it is those that I know had the least chance to live.
This prison claimed an average of 100 victims a day, and when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, only seven prisoners were found alive. Fourteen others had been tortured to death as the Vietnamese forces were closing in and photos of their gruesome deaths are on display in the rooms where they were found.
In these same rooms, you can still see bloodstains on the floor.
What makes a visit to this museum even more disturbing is the fact that, at first glance, it seems so ordinary — like a regular school. Upon closer inspection however, you see that the schoolyard swing-set sits next to unmarked graves, and the classrooms, devoid of desks, are now the home of instruments of torture.
The most horrific fact that I learned on my visit to the museum was that as the Khmer Rouge grew more and more suspicious of the adults within their organization, they recruited children to work in the prison as guards and killers.
The dead are still being counted, but it is estimated that between 1-3 million people were murdered during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
On April 15, 1998, Pol Pot died.
He was never put on trial for his crimes.