“Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison” by David Chandler was an academic and disturbing look into one of the most grotesque institutions of this century, on par with other similar institutions: the Holocaust concentration camps, the Russian Show Trials and the “reeducation campaigns” in the ’40s in China. Covering the history and discovery of the prison, Chandler takes us deep into the bowels of this former high school in Phnom Penh, introducing us to the creators, guards, torturers, prisoners, and survivors. Run by former schoolteachers, S-21, otherwise known as santebal (“a Khmer compound term that combined the words santisuk (security) and nokorbal (police)” (Chandler 3)) was an interrogation and torture facility where men, women, and children were locked up, starved, beaten, pitted against one another, and eventually executed in the killing field behind what was formerly the primary school also situated on the high school grounds. The people who worked at the prison were generally young men from lower class income brackets. Chandler draws a parallel with Mao’s China–the heads of the Khmer Rouge and of S-21 preferred workers with little education: “in Mao’s phrase, ‘poor and blank’ to those corrupted by capitalism or extensive schooling (Chandler 32).” The prison’s maximum number was around 1,500 prisoners at one time, with a varying number being taken for interrogation and others taken directly to the killing field for execution.
The prison had a strict regimen of documentation. When prisoners were brought through the gates, pictures were taken, names, ages, and places of birth written down, and prisoners went through extensive questioning before they were finally placed in cells ranging from solitary (for the most important prisoners) to small cells crowded with upwards of 25 people. People were brought to santebal for a multitude of reasons: someone had named them in a confession, they had been picked up for suspicious behavior in zones throughout the country, or because they were suspected as being enemies and against the “Organization.” There were also many cases of prisoners brought in without any real explanation or reason. When two Vietnamese photojournalists first discovered the prison on January 8, 1979 they found rooms stacked to the brim with documentation about the prison itself, the workers, the guards, the prisoners, and the executions. They found recently dead bodies and blood on the ground, and hastily emptied rooms. In the documents found, and others later handed over to the Cambodian Genocide Program (headed by Yale), extensive notes were taken down during each interrogation session. Why was it that such lengthy reports were kept long after the prisoners’ executions? Chandler talks at length through several chapters about the reasons the operators of S-21 might have had for keeping such meticulous documentation of its torture facility. Ultimately, documents are still being discovered and extensive research and psychological work continues to be done. In the documents discovered were extensive examples and descriptions of the torture techniques used in the prison. Examples of such are beatings (stick, hand, electrical wire), burning, water tortures, being jabbed with a needle, paying homage to different parts of the room, and suffocation with a plastic bag, among others. Not only did the workers at S-21 explain these torture methods, they also took hundreds of photographs of the mutilated bodies (before and after death).
Out of the 14,000+ men, women, and children held at santebal throughout its three years of operations, a mere twelve individuals managed to escape. Only seven of them have come forward with their story. After the prison was discovered in early January of 1979, the Vietnamese hurriedly put the place back together into a makeshift museum that started seeing visitors as early as March of the same year. A survivor of S-21, Ung Pech, was the director of the prison when it reopened (as a museum) in 1980. If one were to visit the prison today they would see mugshots enlarged on the walls, cells filled with the torture devices found in the prison, the killing field displaying thousands of skulls, and stacks and stacks of documentation. They would also be able to read memories from the few survivors of the prison.
Chandler’s book brings the reader a very detailed, descriptive look behind the walls of S-21. As I read through his reports of the prison and his documentation, I was taken aback again and again by the intense amount of cruelty the Khmer Rouge had and displayed for their own people. I find myself wondering about the possibility of this kind of behavior in the world today. Throughout the text Chandler makes connections between various other torture facilities and genocides across the globe and throughout history. For me, perhaps because I spent a short amount of time in Cambodia and because I have read two first hand accounts of the war there, it strikes me as much more real and immediate than others I have heard or read about. Only in 2006 was Duch, the head of S-21, captured, tried, and put in prison. Only a few days ago the trial for Brother Number Two (among other higher ups in the Khmer Rouge) began in Phnom Penh. This “history” of war and torture is very much a part of Cambodian’s lives and should be more recognized throughout the world. Where Luong Ung’s book “First They Killed My Father” brought me into the body and experience of a young girl who underwent the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and survived to tell her story, David Chandler’s book got down to the nitty gritty of the reality, reasoning and creation of a hellhole such as santebal. Having the balance between a memoir and a non-fiction academic look at the regime and prison helped me take my first steps in understanding this time of unrest and genocide in Cambodia. Reading (in Chandler’s book) about the psychology behind those who created a place of such extreme pain and death was very interesting and leaves me wanting to keep learning and discovering as much as I can about this time in very recent history.
A lot of my current readings on Cambodia remind me of other extreme oppressive forces in the Buddhist countries of Tibet and Burma. In a book I just recently finished, “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him, also about the Khmer Rouge, I noticed a few references to praying to Buddha to save them from all the death and destruction they were dealing with. The main character, Chanrithy, often says that Cambodia was once a very Buddhist country, but that the people felt like Buddha had abandoned them with the installment of the Khmer Rouge. In Tibet and Burma, you see massive amounts of peaceful protest happening not only by the common people, but by Buddhist monks as well. Buddhism and the Dalai Lama preach non-violence and yet the heads of all three of these countries (Tibet/China, Burma, and Cambodia) have inflicted upon their people decades of oppressive, militant destruction. It is interesting, and mystifying to me, that these countries still consider themselves Buddhist, for it seems to me, how they go about responding to the problems in their countries, is anything but Buddhist. I suppose you see this extreme in other religions as well though: with Islamic fundamentalists and Christians too. What people will do in the name of their religion astounds me. And yet, the Khmer Rouge wasn’t Buddhist, even though the people it killed and destroyed were. The whole situation leaves much to contemplate, and like I said earlier, I look forward to reading more on these subjects and increasing my awareness.