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30 December 2011 / leggypeggy

Heartbreak in Cambodia—Security Prison 21 (S-21)

Acres and acres of heartbreaking photos.

Cambodia has a dark, brutal and heartbreaking past. There’s no need to give a history lesson here—if you’re interested in knowing more, books and the internet have plenty of information on Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime (these links are to Wikipedia—I’ve just given a donation and I hope that anyone else who can give, will do so. Wikipedia is an amazing and valuable resource).

But I digress.

The bottom line is that during the second half of the 1970s, tens of thousands (perhaps even two million) Cambodians, especially those from the capital of Phnom Penh, were tortured and executed by the regime’s security forces.

A glimpse of the horror of those times is captured in two sites that are must-sees on any trip to Cambodia—Security Prison 21 (S-21) and the Killing Fields.

S-21 started out as the Tuol Svay Prey HIgh School. In 1975, Pol Pot’s security forces took over this suburban school and turned it into the country’s largest centre for detention and torture. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of its cruelty. Prisoners were photographed before, and sometimes after, being tortured. These records survive and are displayed.

A detention room

As a result, S-21 (also called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) displays room after room of these depressing and heartbreaking photographs, including men, women, teenagers, children and infants. Cells and detention rooms are shown, more or less, as they were when the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in 1979.

When liberation came to S-21, only seven prisoners were still alive—all of whom survived because they had skills  such as photography or painting that were valued and exploited by the regime. Fourteen other prisoners were tortured to death as the Vietnamese forces closed in on the city. Their graves are in the courtyard.

A poster at S-21 explains, in slightly broken English, that the display should help to ensure that younger generations never forget what happened and remind them that such a thing must never again occur in Cambodia or other countries.

The seven survivors from S-21

Pol Pot died in 1991. Today some surviving members of the Khmer Rouge regime are being tried for their crimes in the specially created Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCC).

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