By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
For a generation now, the world has known the grim history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge -- the dislocation, the death camps, the terrible human toll. A million dead, perhaps two. Pol Pot, the Paris-schooled intellectual who led that peasant revolution, has earned a seat alongside Hitler, Stalin and now, perhaps, Milosevic, in this century‘s pantheon of villainy -- architects of evil who seem so far outside the norms of conduct as to affirm for us, in some perverse way, our own righteousness. We shudder; we shake our heads; we wonder, “How could they?”
Now there’s more -- more evidence of perfidy, and along with it, a more probing look at the question of what happened, and how, and why. In Voices From S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot‘s Secret Prison, Australian historian David Chandler explores the heretofore untold story of the concentration camp at the center of the vortex of violence and recrimination that was the Khmer Rouge, and, in the process, looks deeply at questions of culture and humanity.
The basic contours of S-21 are familiar enough to anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the Holocaust or the Soviet gulag. Located on the grounds of a former high school in the southern section of the capital city of Phnom Penh, the complex was never named but came to be known as “the place where people went in but never came out.” (The designation “S-21” came later, in official Khmer Rouge documents -- it was the code name for the party’s secret police.) In practice S-21 was an interrogation and torture facility, where perceived enemies of the state were taken to confess their crimes. If they survived that process, they were taken out and slaughtered.
It was not a huge place -- four whitewashed three-story buildings framing a compound of not more than an acre -- and over the course of the four years the Khmer Rouge were in power, S-21 claimed the lives of just 14,000 victims, a fraction of those dispatched at Auschwitz or Buchenwald. But within its walls, the cruelty matched anything that had come before.
Distilling thousands of pages of Khmer Rouge documents, assembling hellish details from the sparse commentaries of half a dozen survivors and from internal camp documents, Chandler re-creates the patterns of daily life inside S-21. Torture was the dominant theme. As one staff member recalled, “There was lots of screaming, especially at night, when there was no noise in Phnom Penh. The cries were so loud we could hear them from half a mile away.” Another, a former guard, said he could hear people screaming “every time I went on duty.”
The ordeal endured by the individual prisoners is hard to fathom, especially considering that many were loyal cadre who never imagined their own party could turn on them so ruthlessly. Ten Chan, an S-21 survivor, recalled being beaten and occasionally tortured for 26 straight days. One pathetic “confession” reels between anger and residual loyalty: “I beg the Organization to kill me because I have not followed the revolution . . . But I must declare that in my heart I have not betrayed the Organization at all. I declare my guilt . . . because I am dying. Long live the glorious revolution!”
Nor was the terror limited to the prisoners of S-21. The guards, the interrogators, even the clerks at the camp were in constant danger of being judged insufficiently zealous, and were often pushed over the line from captor to victim. In the end, 79 prison workers became prisoners themselves, and thus fell to the terrible logic of the camp -- interrogation, torture and death.
But Chandler is not satisfied with detailing the wrongdoings of the Khmer Rouge jailers. What fascinates him are not the holding tanks and torture cells, but a freestanding wooden structure at the center of the compound, the S-21 administration building, where thousands of transcribed “confessions” of tortured prisoners -- some handwritten and some typed, ranging from a single page to several hundred -- were stored.
The very existence of such an archive challenges easy assumptions that would explain S-21 as simple barbarism, or even as a typical institution of extreme punishment. Chandler wonders, “Why was it maintained? Why were such lengthy and detailed confessions extracted from people already condemned to death, and kept on file after the prisoners had been killed?”
The apparent answer lies in the paranoid dynamic that drove the Khmer Rouge leaders who set the party agenda -- a self-fulfilling hunt for enemies not unlike the Red scare that swept the U.S. in the 1950s. From a distance such fanatic witch-hunts can easily be dismissed as insane, but from the inside, they proceed inevitably from their own internal logic. That logic is at the heart of Voices From S-21.
Prisoners were not mere criminals, or even proven traitors. Usually they were ranking party members, sometimes just a step away from the ruling circle, scapegoats for the national breakdown that marked Pol Pot‘s regime. Determined to assign blame rather than accept the mounting evidence of their own failure, the party leaders became obsessed with the idea of betrayal, and convinced that torture would in fact reveal the hidden plots against them.