The Long Wander in Cambobia © Sahand Sedghi

S-21: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Phnom Penh, Cambodia


S-21 Tuol Sleng Prison © Sahand Images

Tuol Sleng is a prison. It was once a school. Once the Khmer Rouge (KR) Regime took power, it became a detention and death center for individuals accused of opposing the Regime. In the Khmer language, the word “Tuol Sleng” connotes a terrible meaning in itself. It is perhaps only a strange coincidence that the KR regime used this specific location as a prison. The rough translation of “Tuol Sleng” literally means a poisonous hill.

It was the most secret organ of the KR regime. More commonly known as S-21, the code for Security Office 21, it became widely associated with the horrors of the KR regime. The prison was established in May 1976. It was the KR's premier security institution, specifically designed for the interrogation and extermination of anti-KR elements.

In 1962, S-21 was a high school. Today all of the buildings of the old school form part of the museum of genocidal crimes of Tuol Sleng. It covers approximately one square kilometer and what used to be four school buildings became administration, interrogation and torture offices. During the KR regime it was enclosed by two folds of corrugated iron sheets, all covered with dense, electrified barbed wire to prevent escape.

The victims of S-21 were taken from all parts of the country and from all walks of life. They were different nationalities including Vietnamese, Laotians, Thai, Indians, Pakistanis, British, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians. The vast majority, however, were Cambodian. These people were workers, farmers, engineers, technicians, intellectuals, professors, teachers, students, ministers and diplomats. Whole families from the bottom up, including newly born babies, were taken there en masse to be exterminated.

Before prisoners were put in cells they were photographed. Their biographies were taken. The date of their arrest was recorded. They were stripped bare, everything taken from them and they slept on the concrete floor of their cells without mats or blankets. They were inspected four times a day and forced to do “exercises” while shackled to a metal rod. They had an iron bucket for defecation and a plastic pot for urine. They had to ask permission to relieve themselves or face 20-60 strokes with an electrified lash as punishment.

The rules were posted in each cell:

1. You must answer accordingly to my questions. Do not turn them away.
2. Do not try to hide the facts by making pretexts of this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Do not be a fool for you a chap who dares to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Do not tell me either about your immoralities or the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Do not make pretexts about KR in order to hide your jaw of traitor.
9. If you do not follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Even moving in one's sleep without asking permission was cause for punishment.

Tuol Sleng is a completely unimpressive compound of old school buildings. But sleeping inside of each of these concrete shells on a rusty, iron bed frame is the nightmare that reminds anyone who visits of Cambodia's very recent past.


Pol Pot, the founder and leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in a camp along the border with Thailand in 1998. The man most wanted for crimes against humanity in Cambodia will never be brought to justice. Due to age and health issues other key figures have also died. As time goes on, some people are beginning to question whether it is too late to achieve a proper sense of justice for the Cambodian people.

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