A harrowing but fascinating & enlightening visit to a UNESCO memory of the world site: The Khmer Rouge S-21 interrogation centre

Before reading this you need to know that it may be upsetting. That isn’t deliberate. It isn’t gratuitous. It isn’t intended. But I think it is impossible to not be moved by learning about what happened in the Khmer Rouge S21 interrogation centre & prison.

The site is a former high school which was used as the Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. 

We’re talking about something occurring during my lifetime. S-21 was one of at least 150 execution centres in Cambodia during those four terrible years at at least 12000 but possibly up to 20000 prisoners were killed in S21 alone.

The Khmer Rouge adapted high school to become a prison by converting classrooms to torture chambers & tiny prison cells.

Prisoners were provided with a munitions box in which to defaecate and a plastic bottle in which to urinate. Any spillage is on the floor resulted in beatings or electrocution.

Prisoners were showered by hose pipes – sometimes once every three months – and spent their time shackled to iron bars and each other in the larger chambers.

The people who were brought here – children, women and men – were repeatedly tortured and coerced into providing false confessions to “crimes” they never committed, after which they were murdered.

Medical experiments were carried out in the prison by Khmer Rouge doctors who had received four months of training – including blood draining until death and removal of organs without anaesthetic.

Physical torture, mental torture, neglect, disease, dehumanisation and outright degrading treatment occurred, it would seem, every day.

Only 7 people are known to have survived S21 and when the prison was discovered during the liberation in 1979, the final 12 prisoners who had been murdered there – and left behind – were given a proper funeral in the grounds of the compound.

This is a place of great sadness but it is preserved very carefully, very factually and very respectfully.

I believe it is important, when working in a different country from home to try and learn more about the history of the communities and the society in which they are now placed. It is only by trying to learn about this that I think it is possible to even try to understand about why people living in communities today do, or have to do, the things we see.

I’ve had the privilege over the last week to be able to speak privately to an academic lawyer working in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal:


That tribunal – properly constituted in accordance with law – is still hearing cases now of people from the Khmer Rouge who are accused of genocide and other crimes against people. What is absolutely right is that they have the right to full legal representation and to defend themselves. Their cases are handled in accordance with accepted legislation with international and Cambodian legal experts involved.

To do otherwise would be no better than the lack of human rights in S21 interrogation centre itself.

This centre is now a very calm and peaceful place.

As we finished the visit there was an old man sitting on a chair, asleep in the shade.

He was one of the seven survivors of S21. 

He deserves to sleep there, or wherever he wants to, for as long as he wants to.


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