Saturday, 10 January 2009

S-21 and the Cambodian genocide (1975 - 79)

In 1975, Pol Pot, the leader of the Communist Khmer Rouge, transformed two schools in Phnom Penh to a centre for detention, interrogation and torture. Twenty thousand people were brought to S-21, and only seven made it out alive.

By the end of Pol Pot's four years as Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea, an estimated 25 per cent of the population (somewhere between 750,000 – 2 million people) had died. Pol Pot had imposed a strictly agrarian society where everyone was forced to grow rice. Families were split up, and intellectuals were killed. Anyone who didn't conform, was sent to a security centre, like S-21, to be tortured until they 'confessed'.

The treatment of prisoners was horrendous and inhumane. Guards would tie prisoners' arms behind their backs and hang them upside down from the gallows. When the victims lost consciousness, their heads would be dipped into the water below. To stop prisoners committing suicide by jumping off the top of the building, the cell block had to have barb wire installed. As we walked around the museum, we stumbled across a pile of the victims' clothes in a store room. It was very chilling.

To date, the main perpetrators of the genocide haven't been brought to justice. Some lower ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge have spent a bit of time in prison, but many high ranking officials are still leading normal lives. Pol Pot died in 1998, just after the Khmer Rouge had agreed to hand him over to an international tribunal.

Wandering around the streets of Phnom Penh now has new meaning for us. On 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, and others, with fake threats of American bombing raids. Just 33 years later, Phnom Penh is again full of life. Looking at older members of society, we wonder what memories must haunt them? How does a country recover from a genocide committed by its own people?

Documentation Center of Cambodia
offers more information about the crimes and victims of the Khmer Rouge.

You can also read about our border crossing.