Tuol Sleng, Choeung Ek & Abu Ghraib

May 2004

Background: From 1975-1979, Cambodia was ruled by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, headed by Pol Pot. During this time, approximately 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives (21% of the population.) It was one of the worst human tragedies of the twentieth century.

Tuol Sleng

On Monday afternoon I found my way to a pleasant urban neighborhood in Phnomh Penh, an area of modest homes and shops. But here, inside the walls of a former high school, lies the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge converted the former school into Security Office 21 (S-21), a detention and torture center for their ethnic cleansing program. From 1975 to 1978, it is estimated that some 17,000 prisoners were confined, tortured and interrogated here, and then either killed onsite or at one of the many "killing fields" outside the city.


Tuol Sleng Tuol Sleng

From the outside, it looks like an ordinary, decrepit third-world high school.

Tuol Sleng

Inside, the ghastly views begin. First is the glass case full of skulls.

Tuol Sleng Tuol Sleng

Many have holes, cracks and slices, indicating trauma.

Tuol Sleng

Prison administrators carefully documented their work, including photographs of prisoners before and after torture.

Tuol Sleng Tuol Sleng


Tuol Sleng Tuol Sleng

Paintings by a former prisoner (one of six known survivors.)

Tuol Sleng Tuol Sleng

A torture bed and leg irons.

Tuol Sleng Tuol Sleng

Security Regulations for prisoners.

Tuol Sleng
Tuol Sleng

Shell-shocked museum visitors.

Tuol Sleng

Choeung Ek

I also visited Cheung Ek Genocidal Center, situated 15 kilometers south-west of Phnom Penh and made famous by the film "The Killing Fields." It is estimated that around 17,000 prisoners from S-21 Prison were transported here and killed. They were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets.

In 1980, the remains of 8985 people were exhumed at this site. However, there remain many untouched graves.

This is just one of many "killing fields" around Cambodia, most of which have not been exhumed and remain as silent cemeteries of this historic nightmare.

Cheung Ek Genocidal Center

Mass graves

Cheung Ek Genocidal Center Cheung Ek Genocidal Center


Cheung Ek Genocidal Center Cheung Ek Genocidal Center

In the center of the site is an eerie 17-story concrete-and-glass stupa which houses 8000 exhumed skulls.

Cheung Ek Genocidal Center Cheung Ek Genocidal Center


Cheung Ek Genocidal Center Cheung Ek Genocidal Center

Remains of rotten clothing dug up with the bones.

Cheung Ek Genocidal Center Cheung Ek Genocidal Center

Our guide showed us a tree that she said was used by Khmer Rouge executioners; holding infants by the feet, they smashed their heads against the trunk of the tree, thus saving bullets.

Cheung Ek Genocidal Center Cheung Ek Genocidal Center

Hopefully the children of today's Cambodia will never know such horrors.

Cheung Ek Genocidal Center Cheung Ek Genocidal Center

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Street 113, Boeng Keng Kang 3
Chankar Mora, Phnomh Penh, Cambodia
Tel: (855) 23-300-698
Hours: Daily 8am -11:30am & 2pm-5:30pm.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
15 km southwest of Phnom Penh
Hours: Daily except Monday from 8.30am to 4.30pm.

Abu Ghraib

What's the distance from Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, to Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad? The Internet says the distance is 4077 miles (6562 km), but is it really so far? Put humans (Khmer Rouge or American soldiers) in a prison with absolute control over other people's bodies and lives (Cambodians or Iraqis), and horrible things are bound to happen.

Abu Ghraib Prison Abu Ghraib Prison

Story and more photographs from The New Yorker

U.S. Government Support for the Khmer Rouge

Australian investigative journalist John Pilger has written extensively about Cambodia. In The Long Secret Alliance he documents how the United States Government provided key support to the Khmer Rouge. Excerpts:

The U.S. not only helped to create conditions that brought Cambodia's Khmer Rouge to power in 1975, but actively supported the genocidal force, politically and financially. By January 1980, the US was secretly funding Pol Pot's exiled forces on the Thai border. The extent of this support -- $85 million from 1980-86 -- was revealed 6 years later in correspondence between congressional lawyer Jonathan Winer, then counsel to Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

In 1981, President Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, said, "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. The U.S.", he added, "winked publicly" as China sent arms to the Khmer Rouge (KR) through Thailand.

In 1980, under US pressure, the World Food Program handed over food worth $12 million to the Thai Army to pass on to the KR. According to former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, "20,000 to 40,000 Pol Pot guerrillas benefited. This aid helped restore the KR to a fighting force, based in Thailand, from which it destabilized Cambodia for more than a decade."

In 1982, the U.S. and China, supported by Singapore, invented the Coalition of the Democratic Government of Kampuchea, which was, as Ben Kiernan pointed out, neither a coalition, nor democratic, nor a government, not in Kampuchea. Rather, it was what the CIA calls a "master illusion." ... Cambodia's former ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was appointed its head; otherwise little changed. The KR dominated the two "non-communist" members, the Sihanoukists and the Khmer Peoples' National Liberation Front (KPNLF). From his office at the UN, Pol Pot's ambassador, the urbane Thereon Parish, continued to speak for Cambodia. A close associate of Pol Pot, he had in 1975 called on Khmer expatriates to return home, whereupon many of them disappeared.


The Documentation Center of Cambodia
Yale University Cambodian Genocide Center
The Long Secret Alliance, by John Pilger

The Killing Fields by Roland Joffe

When The War Was Over, by Elizabeth Becker
History of Cambodia, by David Chandler
Brother Number One - A Political Biography of Pol Pot, by David Chandler
Voices from S-21, by David Chandler
The Killing Fields, by Christopher Hudson
Cambodia: Report from a troubled Land, by Henry Kamm
The Pol Pot Regime, by Ben Kiernan
Cambodia: 1975-1982, by Michael Vickery

Main page of Chris In Cambodia