Ghosts of Cambodia: S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Ghosts of Cambodia: S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21)

Cambodia – a land of stunning natural beauty, and a Terrible past. To say that I have been putting off writing this post would be an understatement. I have carried it on my chest long enough – and it is important to tell the world about what happened in Cambodia during the era of the Khmer Rouge. Sadly this is not the first time that genocide of this proportion has occurred, and not likely the last.

Genocide is the systematic destruction of all or a significant part of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group. Well-known examples of genocide include the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, and more recently the Rwandan genocide (

In December 2014, we traveled throughout Cambodia, visiting villages, visiting temples(Wat) and had seen a few small memorial stupas in grassy fields. Nothing had prepared us for what we were to see at the last part of our visit to the capital city of Phomn Penh. Phomn Penh, a vibrant, modern city has two memorial sites dedicated to those that were killed during the Khmer Rouge legacy: Tuol Sleng (Prison S-21) and Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields). In Phomn Penh, we visited two memorial sites dedicated to those that were killed during the Khmer Rouge legacy: Tuol Sleng (Prison S-21) and Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields).

Knowing that Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) would be an emotionally intense experience I went on my own, though my two daughters age 11 and 9 went the following day to Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields).

Deep in my gut I really did not want to go. I had seen photos and read blog posts about the former school turned into Khmer Rouge prison: seeing photos is one thing, actually going there and seeing with your own eyes is another. Simply, I had to go to fully understand why the Khmer Rouge killed so many people, and also to understand Cambodia modern history. Like millions of visitors to Tuol Sleng – I struggled with the things I saw when learning more about the regime of the Khmer Rouge – things that can never be unseen.

When the Khmer Rouge captured Phonm Penh in 1975, Tuol Svay Pray High School was a school. During the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) the school was a secret prison (S-21) for interrogation and torture, one of 196 secret prisons set up through out Cambodia. Only S-21 remains, now re-named to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Read more on the history of Cambodia since its Independence from France in 1954, learn about the chain of event that lead to the rule of the Khmer Rouge, the legacy of war and corruption [Cambodia: Civil war, Communists, Capitalists, Cold War and Corruption].

The Khmer Rouge used S-21 to eliminate the educated and elite, all professionals, teachers, doctors, artisans, military personnel, members of the previous government, people speaking foreign languages, people wearing glasses, anyone who showed slight hint of intellect– and their families. They were labeled traitors, arrested, interrogated, tortured and executed. Many were accused of absurd and completely fictitious acts of treason, and various methods of torture were used to get names of other ‘traitors’, whom were also arrested along with their entire family (immediate family, aunts, uncles, nephews, niece even babies). During the later years of the Khmer Rouge regime, members of the Khmer Rouge whom were suspected of treachery or sabotage were imprisoned and tortured in S-21. Most victims brought to S-21 did not die from torture or starvation, they were taken to Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields) to be killed and their bodies thrown into mass graves.

Between 1975 and 1979 a total of 14,000 people were known to have entered S-21, only seven survived !. It was only when S-21 was liberated by the Vietnamese Army in 1979, that the rest of the world became aware of what had really happened inside Tuol Svay Pray High School.

I knew this would be a difficult day, but there are times when I was actually gasping for breath with the weight of it all. If it already sounds too much for you, you shouldn’t read on. Gruesome does not begin to cover it.

Think about it – Where were you between 1974-1979 ?.
Most likely, you were not even born. I was between 6 and 11 years old during this time; going to school, playing games with my friends, eating lots of food, …not a worry in the world.

Kids in Cambodia were going through Hell. Interestingly, my father was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War 2 when he was between ages 6 and 11. From what little he was willing to tell me about, he also went thorough Hell.

At Tuol Sleng Prison I did not take the guided tour, instead wanting to wander through the site at my own pace and not have to rush to keep up to the guide. While in my solitude several tours came and went. I heard enough of the gruesome details, most of which won’t be written here. Many of the guides were relatives of those whom were brought here, one was even a survivor !. It must be an awful place to be a guide, telling the same heart wrenching stories over and over.

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.



As much as possible, the site has been undisturbed. The ground floor classrooms still have the original school desk and steel frame beds with leg shackles, left just as they had been found by the Vietnamese in 1979. On the walls, are photos of the last victims, their maimed and mutilated bodies still chained to the beds with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted the two Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January 1979. These last victims of S-21 are buried in the court yard. Stepping into these rooms, I can’t even imagine the horror that happened here.

Interrogation rooms as they were in 1979.

Interrogation rooms as they were in 1979.

Interrogation bed, with photo of last victim

Interrogation bed, with photo of last victim

Interrogation room in color. Notice the stains on the floor.

Interrogation room in color. Notice the stains on the floor.











In the courtyard of the prison, the Khmer Rouge used the former gym equipment as a torture device, hanging prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness, then dipping their heads into filthy water which would bring them back into consciousness to continue their interrogations.

In the courtyard of the prison, the Khmer Rouge used the former gym equipment as a torture device, hanging prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness, then dipping their heads into filthy water which would bring them back into consciousness to continue their interrogations.




The upper floor classrooms were used as holding cells. In some buildings, large numbers of prisoners were shacked to the floor, in other buildings the original class rooms were divided into tiny spaces. [Click on the photo to see it larger]



The Khmer Rouge were meticulous at record keeping. Each prisoner was photographed before they were tortured and sometimes after they were tortured. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge did not have enough time to destroy all the records before the arrival of the Vietnamese Army. Each of the nearly 6,000 photos of S-21 victims tells a story. One room at S-21 contains hundreds of black and white photos of victims staring back at you. Rows and rows of portraits – their haunting faces become etched into your brain. Imagine, they were killed just because they could read or write, or their mother was a school teacher !. [Click on the photo to see it larger].


One building at S-21 contains an small display of eight Khmer Rouge combatants that worked at S-21 as guards, interrogators and other prison staff. During that time, they would have been between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. Their stories of those years include remorse, guilt, and some consider themselves to be victims – fearing for their lives and forced into the killings otherwise they would be tortured and killed. To read their Bio’s click on the photo to see it larger.


Take some time to reflect.


Choeung Ek Killing Fields

From a distance, Choeung Ek resembles a grassy area with a few pits and a large lake surrounded by a moat.


Coming closer along the trail, you see fragments of human teeth, bones and shreds of clothing that are slowly being exposed by erosion. Reality hits. Reality hits hard !.


The signs along the trail point to the pits, more accurately called mass graves where bones (only skulls) have been excavated. Only some of the graves have been excavated, there are likely hundreds of thousands of bodies still to be found over time. In 1980, 86 mass graves were excavated and almost 9,000 bodies were exhumed. Many skulls still had cloth tied over the eye sockets – the victims were blindfolded, rope fragments were uncovered still wrapped around arm bones. There are 43 mass graves that are left untouched. The large lake surrounded by the moat also probably contains the remains of hundreds – even thousands of victims. Below – photos taken of photos, showing the huge pile of bones and skulls that were excavated from the mass graves.


There is also a particular tree. From a distance it is instantly recognizable, covered with hundreds
friendship bracelets. This is the tree, that the Khmer Rouge used to smash the skulls of babies and children, or be thrown into the air and shot with a pistol. The friendship bracelets are left by visitors wishing to pay their respects.


At the end of the path is Choeung Ek Memorial, built to commemorate the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is a multi-layed structure, filled with thousands of skulls that were excavated from the pits in 1980. Some of the skill are labelled, indicating the method of death and the type of implement used.


We placed some flowers beside the memorial. It is impossible not to be over-come with emotion.
The kids, are too young to grasp the full reality of what happened here. We skipped over parts of the audio recording of what happened here. There is no need for them to be permanently affected by this experience.

Visiting Tuol Sleng Prison and the Choeung Ek killing field was a deeply heartbreaking experience, and I am thankful that I did visit both. They are the most horrific places that I have ever visited, and the experience helped me better understand and appreciate this brutal time in Cambodia’s history, and its impacts on Cambodian people that lived through those years.

The Khmer Rouge experience is fresh. It is raw. It is recent and the atrocities committed at these two sites are absolutely horrendous. Having been there – I cannot erase the mental images from my mind. I am now different, and will never be the same again.

The Prisoners last moments at Choeung Ek
For those of you interested in more details of what happened at Choeung Ek – read on. If you have already experienced enough, you should not read the next section. It is a gruesome tale of the prisoners last moments alive at Choeung Ek.

After the prisoners in S-21 were tortured enough, they were brought for execution to Cheoung Ek, one of the many killing fields established by Khmer Rouge throughout the country. Victims were trucked out to Choeung Ek, at about 8 or 9 o’clock PM, to be killed. The guards took the prisoners from their cells to the main gate where a large truck waited and told them that they were being transferred to another place. This lie was created to prevent the prisoners from crying, refusing to go or from escaping.

On a monthly basis two or three trucks would go from S-21 to Choeung Ek. Each truck held three or four guards and twenty to thirty frightened, silent prisoners. When the trucks arrived at the site, the prisoners names were verified. Depending on the number of prisoners, they were sent for execution immediately, or packed into a small building until the following night. Executions were always done at night, under the bright lights and with patriotic Khmer Rouge songs blasting from speakers in the killing field. When their names were called, they were led in small groups to ditches and pits. The end was close.

They were ordered to kneel down at the edge of the hole. Their hands were tied behind them. They were beaten on the neck with an iron ox-cart axle, hoe, stick, axe, wooden club or whatever else served as a weapon of death. Sometimes with one blow, sometimes with two… Some were stabbed with knives or swords, and others had their throats slit with knifes or serrated sugar palm. Bullets were deemed to be too expensive.

Photo of the prisoners being taken off the truck from S-21, blindfolded and soon to be executed.

3 thoughts on “Ghosts of Cambodia: S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek Killing Fields

  1. Unbelievable. Shocking. I’m at a loss for words. Surprised and sickened at how violent and hateful humans can be to each other. Thank you for this, Steve.

  2. I visited both of these yesterday and I am still feeling the shock of it today, I feel devestated. But when looking back through my photos last night of the killing fields, I actually have a photo of at least 3 faces, there was no one else there and I know for certain that these are the ghosts of just some of the poor souls who met their death here. My photo is in colour and the faces in it are black and white, they are clearly cambodian faces and it seems to me they are still trapped there in that awful place, even after death. I was shocked to see this in my photo but I am so so glad to have visited both of these places.

    • Hi Emily. I completely agree with your comment “ghosts of just some of the poor souls who met their death here”. As I toured the Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields), I felt that I was being watched – watched by those that lost their lives in those horrible places.

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