Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cambodia, Pt 5: Khmer Rouge Interrogation Techniques

Looking into one of dozens of classrooms that became a torture chamber

[Fair warning: today's post deals with the torture and murders of nearly all who passed through the Tuol Sleng interrogation center in Phnom Penh, and there are images that may be tough for some to see.]

A now-peaceful courtyard at the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School - a place that became Security Prison S-21

My visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh was disturbing... just as it's intended to be for anyone with any sense of decency toward their fellow man who goes there. If you didn't see the introductory post to the place, it's here. It's a reminder of what inhumane acts are possible in our world, then and now, if nobody stands up and shouts "stop".

When you're standing on an upper floor balcony there and overlooking an open area like the one above after seeing the displays it's a bit difficult to think of it as Chao Ponhea Yat High School, which it was until the Khmer Rouge took it over around 1975.

Then it was full of the chatter, laughter and activity of hundreds of adolescents about to cross the threshold into their adult lives; lives that were to be unexpectedly and forever changed by the circumstances and injustices imposed on many of them during the KR's reign of terror.

Shackles used to "greet" prisoners

If you happened to be thought to be an enemy of the "new order" you were brought to interrogation centers such as this one to confess your transgressions - whether you'd actually thought of or comitted any - and then killed anyway.  In other words, you were guilty... period.

The last 14 victims found after the Khmer Rouge fled the scene are buried in this courtyard

In the picture of the courtyard above you can see a frame. There are several large pots on the ground beneath it. To get "the truth" from the prisoners, some were hung upside down from this makeshift gallows-type frame and left there until they talked. If they passed out, they were dunked into the pots full of human urine and feces to revive them.

In larger rooms like this one long rows of prisoners could be shackled together, feet facing feet. There were no creature comforts whatsoever.

There were many other incarceration/interrogation points, but Tuol Sleng (aka S-21) has become the most notorious, possibly because of its proximity to the area known as "the killing fields" but perhaps because of the sheer number who suffered and died at the hands of their countrymen.

Photos taken by the Khmer Rouge were on the walls of the rooms they'd been taken in.

Upon arrival, prisoners were given a number, photographed, forced to give a detailed history of their lives and family information, and told what the rules were. You can see a version of one such  list in the photo above on the left.

They were then often shackled together at the ankle in long rows in some of the larger rooms to await their turn to confess. Nothing beneath them on the hard floors, no mosquito netting, and no talking was allowed. Oftentimes entire families were brought in together and subsequently wiped out.

Smaller rooms were more often used as the interrogation points, and many have been restored as a testament to what they were decades ago. A couple of examples follow; the "after" photos taken of the poster above the beds in each room. It was overwhelming.

The bed used to torture an alleged enemy of the state...
... and as he ended up after the "interrogation"
...and another bed...
...and another body...

As you walked from room to room you couldn't help but feel you were surrounded by the spirits of those who met their horrible fates in them, and it made for a somber journey, at best.

There was a large group of students there that day, and I stood outside the doorway of one room to await my turn while they looked from the bed to the enlarged image on the wall and back, not even whispering between themselves.

All but one of them (seen in the picture above) filed out past me, and he stood staring at the photo a couple of minutes longer. Finally he looked down at the floor and turned to leave the room, walking slowly with his arms hanging loosely at his sides. When he passed by me he looked up; a tear just beginning to make a trail down his right cheek.

Piles of skulls and bones found on the grounds of S-21

Well over 17,000 were imprisoned and tortured or killed at S-21, and those that managed to leave there alive usually ended up at Choeung Ek, a short distance away.  You're more likely to know that area as the Killing Fields, although it's a far less gruesome place today than S-21. We'll cover that area in the next Cambodia report, and then move on to the more pleasant stops on my visit... and there were many.

One last image from Tuol Sleng


Was Once said...

Thanks for reminding J.Q. Public about the horrors regular people had to endure. My partner and I left sick after seeing it many years ago…he said he felt the ghosts, too. It made us so sad.

khunbaobao said...

As long as there are human beings there will be some who feel they're self-righteous enough as to be above decency, sad to say. Glad you saw it, as odd as that sounds!