As hundreds of thousands of Cambodians slowly starved in the rice fields, a select number of political prisoners and their families met a terrible fate inside Khmer Rouge interrogation centers. The most famous of these centers, codenamed S-21, was located in the abandoned suburban Phnom Penh high school of Tuol Sleng, which ironically translates to "hill of the poison tree." To workers assigned by the Khmer Rouge to the Tuol Sleng neighborhood, S-21 was known simply as konlaenh choul min dael chenh - "the place where people go in but never come out." Tuol Sleng's reputation was brutally accurate: the sole purpose of S-21 was to extract confessions from political prisoners before they were taken away for execution outside of the capital near the farming village of Choeung Ek. Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng; of these only six are known to have survived.
The majority of the victims of Tuol Sleng were actually former Khmer Rouge cadres. With each passing year Angka became more and more paranoid, blaming many of its loyal supporters for Cambodia's woes. The Khmer Rouge leadership saw conspiring enemies around every corner: one particular document from the DK foreign ministry which described these "pests buried within" noted that 1% to 5% of all Cambodians were "traitors." (see Ben Kiernan's translation of The view of the contemporary situation in Cambodia) To exterminate this perceived infestation the Khmer Rouge rounded up hundreds of fellow communists each month, sending them to S-21 in order to extract forced confessions. No one was immune from the purges - even some of the most committed members of the Khmer Rouge leadership, including information minister Hu Nim and deputy prime minister Vorn Vet, were arrested, interrogated and condemned to death at Tuol Sleng.
From the moment you arrived as a prisonor at S-21, your rights and responsibilities were made painfully clear by a set of ten standing orders. These rules dictated how you acted, how you responded to questioning, and how you had no choice but to accept the fact that you were a traitor
and would be treated as such.
The methods of extracting confessions at Tuol Sleng were cruel and barbaric. Prisoners were tortured with battery powered electric shocks, searing hot metal prods, knives and other terrifying implements. For example, in the prison courtyard stood a large wooden frame once used by students for gymnastics practice. The Khmer Rouge converted it into gallows for the hanging torture and execution of prisoners. Though many prisoners died from the constant abuse, killing them outright was discouraged, for it was much more important for the Khmer Rouge to get confessions on paper first. As part of its quest to wipe out traitors, the Khmer Rouge leadership sought to "investigate their personal biographies clearly" in order to get at what caused the prisoners to become traitors as well as to find out who their co-conspirators were. Over time they were tortured as necessary in order to extract whatever confession was needed.
Confessions were an arbitrary concept - in truth, the vast majority of S-21 prisoners were probably innocent of the charges against them, so therefore most prisoners' admissions were lies borne out of excessive torture. Even loyal Khmer Rouge cadres would eventually admit to spying for the CIA or the KGB, secret loyalty to the Vietnamese, sexual crimes - whatever the interrogators asked for they usually got. It was only a matter of time before the torture would break even the strongest of prisoners. The dubious nature of the confessions mattered little to the Khmer Rouge leadership; like the Salem witch trials of puritan Massachusetts, each confession fanned the fires of conspiracy by offering new names (and people) to target. Because prisoners would often name names in their forced confessions, the confessions served as a misguided, but self-fulfilling prophecy to the Khmer Rouge, allowing them to proove to themselves that there was indeed a massive web of traitors amongst them.
Thousands of these confession files, including 5,000 photographs, survive to this day, giving us a grim look at the activities that occured inside Tuol Sleng. The Yale Cambodian Genocide Center has spent many years examining these records, but thousands of the people sent to S-21 have yet to be identified. We may never know who they were or why they were sent there; only their portraits remain to serve as affirmations of their lives - and deaths - at Tuol Sleng.
Next: The Fall of the Khmer Rouge