Tuol Svay Pray High School sits on a dusty road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to
have entered, only seven survived. Not only did the Khmer Rouge carefully transcribe the prisoners' interrogations; they also carefully photographed the vast majority of the inmates and created an astonishing photographic archive. Each of the almost 6,000
S-21 portraits that have been recovered tells a story shock, resignation, confusion, defiance and horror. Although the most gruesome images to come out of Cambodia were those of the mass graves, the most haunting were the portraits taken by the Khmer Rouge
Today, S-21 Prison is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Inside the gates, it looks like any high school; five buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars, green lawns
and lawn-bowling pitches. The ground-floor classrooms in one building have been left to appear as they were in 1977. The spartan interrogation rooms are furnished with only a school desk-and-chair set that faces a steel bed frame with shackles at each end.
On the far wall are the grisly photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted the two Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January of 1979.
In another building the walls are papered with thousands of S-21 portraits. At first glance, the photograph of a shirtless young man appears typical of the prison photos. Closer inspection reveals that the
number tag on his chest has been safety pinned to his pectoral muscle. With a bruised face and a pad-locked chain around his neck, a boy stands with his arms at his sides and looks straight into the camera. A mother with her baby in her arms stares into the
camera with a look of indignant resignation. The photographs and confessions were collected in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out
Many of the questions asked by S-21 interrogators revolved around what
the historian David Chandler has described as "Stalinist" charges of sedition--insurrection against lawful authority. Khmer Rouge torture manuals discouraged torture that ended with death, or what they described as "a loss of mastery." This was discussed at
length in a torturer's manual found at S-21.
The head of S-21 Prison was Kang Kech Ieu, better known as Brother Duch. The former schoolteacher ran a tight ship where both guards and inmates feared
for their lives. In a memo from a meeting, Duch told an interrogator, "Remind him about the welfare of his wife and children; does he know that his wife and children have been detained; now that he is here does he know what has become of his wife?" The guards,
interrogators and other prison staff at S-21 were between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. These self-righteous teens served as the praetorian guards of the Khmer Rouge revolution.
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