This museum used to be a high school. It was built in 1962, in 1975 it became Security Office 21. S-21 is located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was a Khmer Rouge concentration camp, a stop off before Choeunk Ek. Torture, murder, and other atrocities were committed here.
On October 13, 2000, I visited the museum. My moto driver Rocky took me there after he guided me through the Killing Fields (Choeunk Ek) and an artillery range where tourists were shooting AK-47s and grenade launchers (at chickens and cows) I did not shoot.
Rocky stopped in front of a compound surrounded by a gated wall laced with barbed wire. I walked through the gate where three women were seated at a table. I paid them two dollars, they handed me a brochure. Following a path and a sign which read "Building A" I looked around a courtyard surrounded by four buildings. The first building was dirty grey, four stories, with an outdoor hallway on each floor that overlooked a courtyard (all the buildings were like this). On each balcony were doors that led into what used to be classrooms, a mesh of barbed wire gated each upper floor balcony. Posted on the front of the first building were regulations for the prisoners:
- You must answer accordingly to my questions. Do not turn them away.
- Do not try to hide the facts by asking questions, you are prohibited to contest me.
- Do not be foolish, as you are an enemy of the state.
- You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- Do not tell me about your crimes.
- While receiving punishment you must not cry at all.
- Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders.
- If there are no orders, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something. You must do it right away without protesting.
- If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
- If you disobey any point orders, you shall get ten lashes or five shocks of electric.
I stepped up a few stairs to the first room. I felt cold instantly. I hadn't felt this way since I had been to Terezin. The room had a photo on the wall -a charred body strapped to the wire frame of a cot. The cot was still in the room, on the floor were blood stains and an ammo box rested on its side in the corner. I stepped out and opened the brochure. Taking a deep breath, my eyes scanned the page to discover that Building A was left just as it had been found after the liberation of Phnom Penh. 14 rooms, 14 victims of torture. Each room was photographed and the photo was put on the wall. So I went through each room stepping out of one and into the other. Feeling the cool awful history creep through me.
Building B consisted of 8 X 4 cells, complete with an ammo box for defecation and gas bottles for urination, prisoners had to ask permission for either. I was able to walk up to all four stories of this building, the steps reeked of urine. Each room on each floor were cells separated by wood, by brick, mazes of cells. Building C was gutted, the lower levels had photos of the victims. Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took pictures of their prisoners and kept written accounts. These were posted along artists depictions of the atrocities that occurred at S-21, various torture techniques; electrocution, shackles, being stung by scorpions, water torture, babies taken right out of the womb and crushed against the walls. The worst part is that the guards administering these tortures were just kids. Trained and brainwashed by the Khmer Rouge, 9-15 year old children were the prison guards.
Building D was an interrogation room adjacent to the guards quarters, complete with leather couches.
12,000 - 17,000 victims, including foreign journalists and photographers went through S-21 and were systematically murdered between 1976 and 1979.
In Building C, there are holes in the wall where the chains that secured prisoners had been ripped out. In these holes small sparrow like birds were nesting, each darting in and out of the building windows back into their colony of nests. The sounds they made (flapping wings, short chirps), echoed through the open spaces that twenty years ago served as horror were the only sounds I heard there.