Khanh and I began preparing for our exhibitions after visiting the horrible site of Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S-21.
S-21 was a prison camp located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, used by the Khmer Rouge from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. It was also known as Tuol Sleng ('hill of the poisonous tree' or 'hill of guilt').
Formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School, named after a Royal ancestor of King Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in 1975 into a prison and interrogation centre. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex to Security Prison 21 (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture cells and all the windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent prisoner escapes.
From 1975 to 1979, an estimate of 14,000 to 16,000 people were imprisoned at S-21 (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000). The prisoners were selected from all around the country, and usually were former Khmer Rouge members and soldiers, accused of traitorous behaviour or treason. Even though the vast majority of the victims were Cambodian, the prison population included members of other nationalities, including Vietnamese, Thai, Laotians and Pakistanis. A number of Western prisoners passed through S-21 between March 1976 and December 1978. Mostly these were picked up at sea by Khmer Rouge patrol boats. One of the last prisoners to die was American Michael Scott Deeds who was captured with his friend Chris De Lance while sailing from Thailand to Hawaii. The whole family of the prisoner (including women, children and babies) was also often brought en masse to be interrogated and later exterminated at the Choeung Ek extermination centre.
I am still at a loss for trying to write about this terrible episode of recent memory. I will say that it is inspiring to witness firsthand the rebirth of the Khmer artists and intellectual communities after it near annihilation only 30 years ago.
I've uploaded several pictures taken during our short time at S-21. Go to the Tuol Sleng Flash Presentation.
Posted by on February 5, 2006 11:13 AM | Permalink