a story by S4C member Magdalena Chodownik


Security Prison 21 (S-21) was created by the Khmer Rouge in a former high school called Tuol Sleng. Its buildings are located in the capital city of Cambodia – Phnom Penh, and are now transformed into a Museum of Genocide. S-21 made a history as one of the most brutal and tragic prisons in the world, and also became a symbol of Cambodia’s bloody regime of 1975-1979.

During the implementation of the principles of the Khmer Rouge regime about 2 million people lost their lives: people were meant to build the great Democratic Kampuchea but instead, were dying of hunger, exhaustion, diseases, bullets… It turned out that the Khmer Rouge principles led to nothing more but a genocide.

DSCF6556The S-21 has gained its (bad) fame for tortures, inhuman behavior, murders that took place in the former school. Prisoners of S-21 were usually not surviving more than three months. Once arrested, they were taken up for questioning – the brutal interrogation did not end until the accused pleaded guilty to all crimes that the Khmer Rouge attributed to him. Prisoner was also forced into naming the family members, that frequently were getting arrested soon later. This way (among others), the deadly chain of S-21 was created.

It is estimated that around 17 000 people entered S-21 as the “enemies of the revolution”. Only 12 of them came out alive.

To this day, almost 35 years after the collaps of the regime, only few perpetrators have heard allegations – Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, heard them but soon after passed away. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea has started to examine five cases: of Kaing Guek Eav, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Ieng Thirith and their participation in the crimes. Till April 2013 only the process of Kaing Guek Eav was brought to the end – he was found guilty and sentenced. Ieng Thirith was excluded from the proceedings in August 2012 because of dementia, and Ieng Sary died in March 2013.

The time passes, and the justice comes slowly, sometimes too slowly.


S-21 (English) from magda chodownik on Vimeo.

Here is a story* of the man that joined the revolution but died in S-21:

Im Skhan Member, Region 42, North Zone, Story told by Im Sakhan’s niece, Sok Rany, age 47, Srey Santhor District, Kampong Cham Province

“My aunt met Koy Thuon when she was a student and he was a teacher. Thuon was a very popular man who always smiled. When he visited home, he gave things to our family, like clothes and watches, so that we could have a better standard of living. Sakhan was the same.

When they arrested Thuon, they accused him of being immoral, saying he had over 100 women. At first I didn’t believe them, but later I didn’t know. They also stripped him of his rank and made him resign, saying he was CIA. The Khmer Rouge announced his arrest at a meeting.


I heard they wanted to arrest his relatives, too, so I was afraid. After that, the Khmer Rouge asked me how I felt about having an uncle in the CIA. So I blamed Thuon and cursed him. When Thuon’s daughter Min heard that her Father had been arrested, her face fell and she could not sleep. She said she didn’t know if Thuon had betrayed her. After that, they told her she would be moving to another place.

Sakhan was arrested a little later. Because she was pregnant, the Angkar waited to do this until after the baby was born. People said the Khmer Rouge had a one-inch thick dossier on her. All seven of her children were killed.

Koy Thuon joined the revolution in the 1950s and was arrested on January 25th, 1977. He left over 700 pages of confessions at S-21; the last one was dated April 3rd. Im Sakhan was arrested in the North Zone on February 8th, 1977. Her 32-page confession was marked by Duch, the head of S-21. Ban Sarin Santebal (Security) Chief of the North Zone”


Story* of S-21 worker, You Huy, 48 years old (2002)

To tell the truth, I didn’t want to work there. I asked Son Sen if I could leave, but he refused. I was the only one who dared to do that; I finally asked because I was scared that I would be killed if I stayed on. I didn’t feel good about watching the people die one after another and the prisoners’ miserable lives. If the law then had been like the law of today, I wouldn’t be working there; I would have returned home to live with my parents.

People still brand me as an S-21 worker. I shouldn’t have been one, but Duch and Ho forced me to serve at the prison. I was ordered to do this; If I had refused, they would have killed me. If I am summoned to court, I won’t hesitate to provide testimony about what I did in the prison and the reasons I did them.”

*Stories come from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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