Notorious S-21 prison marks 40 years

Notorious S-21 prison marks 40 years

Phnom Penh (dpa) – Bou Meng spends most of his days at the prison that nearly killed him. Next to a banner that declares his status as one of the infamous S-21 prison’s only survivors, the septuagenarian talks to tourists through interpreters as he sells them copies of his remarkable biography.

With fluency and almost no emotion, he recounts how as a young man under the Khmer Rouge, he was imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured at S-21.

As an educated engineer, he was considered an “enemy of the people” under the radical Communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

“They asked, ’You joined CIA or KGB on which day? In which month? In which year? And who introduced and recruited you?’” he told dpa of his prison interrogators.

They later asked him to choose his method of torture: whip or rattan stick.

Bou Meng’s story of survival is famous across Cambodia, as he has testified multiple times on his treatment at the prison at the ongoing UN-backed genocide tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

At the tribunal, crimes committed at S-21 and other so-called security centres have played a central role in the prosecution of former cadres of the Communist Party of Kampuchea as the Khmer Rouge was formally known.

The prison, now known as Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum after the nickname Toul Seng, or Poison Hill, is turning 40.

In April and May 1976 it received the first mass transfers of purged party members with their families, soldiers and officers, intellectuals, Vietnamese, and other foreigners.

The anniversary will be followed by Cambodia’s annual “Day of Hate” on May 20, when the country remembers the regime’s crimes.

Of the 14,000 people who passed through the prison’s gates, Bou Meng was one of just 23 survivors – including five children – who remained at the time of the prison’s liberation by Vietnamese troops on January 7, 1979.

They were famously found by Vietnamese cameraman Ho Van Tay, who followed the smell of rotting bodies to the school-turned-prison, according to records of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

Now the prison has become an important archive, educational centre, and monument for Cambodians and tourists to learn about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, says Dara Vanthan, deputy director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

"S-21 and other Khmer Rouge prisons have played an important role in the current Khmer Rouge Tribunal and have become the educational and healing places for Cambodian people, especially for young Cambodians who did not experience that regime to learn,” he told dpa. 

Moving beyond punishment under the Khmer Rouge, the museum has added a new exhibition focused on the crime of forced marriage as it impacted as many as 250,000 women.

It offers the accounts of seven women and one man to show how the Khmer Rouge attempted to repopulate the struggling nation in what amounted to state-ordered rape.

Excerpts from their oral testimony is featured on the wall of former prison cells, alongside their portraits and photographs from the era. 

While men and women were strictly divided into separate work camps, on occasion, they would be brought together for same-day weddings. In many accounts, they would be lined up by gender and forced to marry the stranger standing next to them; in other cases, high-ranking soldiers or party members would choose a woman.

Once paired off and “married”, soldiers would listen to the couple’s first night together to ensure they consummated the marriage. 

In Thy, 58, whose testimony is featured in the exhibition, recalls the danger of trying to escape her marriage.

“Because it was clear we were not getting along, the spies began to investigate us. My husband was sent to be re-educated, and I was warned by a cadre. My husband and I agreed to have sex in order to survive.”

When she finally fell pregnant, she was forced to continue in her work unit clearing trees, and was given no extra food beyond the daily ration of porridge.

Despite the circumstances surrounding the marriage, many couples chose to stay together after the fall of the Khmer Rouge for the sake of children born under the regime or because they were ashamed.

In Thy chose to stay with her husband as did Smann Simas, 57, who was forced to marry a Cham Muslim man as a teenager, also stayed with her chosen husband for 40 years.

“My husband and I struggled to live together for the sake of the children. As a mother, I need to think about my children’s futures. That is why I decided not to divorce my husband,” she said in her testimony.

The testimonies of women like Smnan Simnas and In Thy will be heard this summer at the genocide tribunal, as Case 002 enters a new phase in the prosecution of former leaders Nuon Chea, deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and Khieu Sampan, the former president.

Thumbail photo source: Wikimedia

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