The prison had an innocent start–before the war, it was a high school. After the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, the school was converted into a prison and interrogation center, and was renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21). It is unclear exactly how many people passed through this prison, but it’s estimated to be somewhere between 17,000 and 30,000 over the course of the war.
The prisoners were tortured, and then would often “confess” misdeeds against the government (many “confessed” to being members of the CIA or KGB), and many people were forced to name others that might be “traitors.” Obviously, it is unrealistic that many (if any) or these confessions were real. Often whole families were brought to the prison–including children. Pictures of many of the inmates line the walls of the prison (now a museum), and several walls display mugshot after mugshot of young children. All day, through the Killing Fields and through most of S-21, I managed to keep it together. But seeing the mugshots of the young children was heartbreaking, and I definitely lost my composure for a few moments. Some looked scared, others defiant, and many, simply sad. I couldn’t wrap my mind around a situation where so many adults could decide it was in the best interests of their country to imprison, torture and murder children. It’s simply unfathomable to me.
After being forced to live in terrible circumstances and tortured, most inmates were eventually killed. Some were killed at the prison, and most were shipped off to the Killing Fields. There are only seven known survivors of S-21. Seven, out of 17,000 (officially), possibly as many as 30,000.
As you can imagine, the prison is a sad place. The Vietnamese liberators left the prison exactly as they found it, except they buried the remaining bodies in the schoolyard, and the photos from the Khmer Rouge’s files have been put on display. Other than that, it’s been mostly left alone. Supposedly you can still see bloodstains on the walls and floors in some places, but I didn’t look too closely–I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing that. At times I wondered why we had even come there, but in the end, I’m glad we did. The history is a dark one, but seeing everything with my own eyes helped me to better understand Cambodia, and to appreciate just how much this country has managed to rise up from the rubble.
What do you think–if you had the chance, would you visit the museum? Share your opinions in the comments! I promise the next post will be something cheerier…Cambodia has many beautiful and happy things to offer in addition to a sad history.