Stark reminder of human cruelty

Editor's note: This corrects the caption of the photo of David C. Henley in front of Tuol Sleng Prison.

Editor's note: The following article is a first-person account of a visit to the former Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia by David C. Henley, a Newport Beach resident. Henley is a former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Examiner, the Christian Science Monitor and Knight-Ridder Newspapers. He and his wife returned home Saturday from a trip to Cambodia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — From a distance, the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School provided no outward evidence of the horrors that took place there more than three decades ago.

I pulled up to the front gate aboard a "tuk-tuk" taxicab, a small, two-wheeled canopied trailer pulled by a motorcycle. Set on a narrow side street in this chaotic and poverty-stricken capital city, the complex of five, three-story concrete buildings surrounded by a playground, palm trees, small shops and food stalls appeared commonplace and ordinary as Kosal, my 35-year-old tuk-tuk driver, let me off at the gate.

But first impressions can be deceiving.

In the 1970s, the former school that had accommodated 1,000 students was converted into the Security Prison-21, or Tuol Sleng Prison, by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime after the K.R. toppled the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in April 1975.

Tuol Sleng, which was also known as "S-21," soon became the nation's largest penal center. Thousands of men, women and children were interrogated, beaten, tortured and killed inside the prison's walls until it was shuttered four years later.

Now a genocide museum, the old prison serves as a testament to the irrationality and cruelty of the radical Khmer Rouge movement, which was led by the infamous "Brother Number One," Pol Pot, from 1975 until Vietnam's 1979 invasion of Cambodia.

During their reign, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh and other cities, forcing their inhabitants to move to the countryside and work as slave laborers in an effort to create a fundamentalist, agrarian utopia in which money, machinery, automobiles, modern medicine, religion, private property, education and all semblances of modern civilization were abolished.

Government officials, Buddhist monks, teachers, professors, students, doctors, scientists and members of the middle and upper classes were murdered outright by the Khmer Rouge, or taken to Tuol Sleng and other facilities, where they were interrogated and forced to write false confessions that implicated family members, friends and neighbors before being tortured and executed.

As I entered the prison, I was joined by a middle-aged German couple and two young Swedish backpackers.

"I hope all five of us can stay together in here. It is too terrible just for the two of us," said the German woman as she clutched her husband's arm.

I, too, needed the company of sympathetic others. What lay before me in the museum was unspeakable. I will never be able to erase from my mind what I saw in that frightening place.

The former classrooms had been converted into tiny brick cells where prisoners were chained to the walls and floors before being photographed and interrogated. The windows, doors and outer corridors were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes or prisoners jumping to their deaths from the upper levels.

Prisoners were ordered to stand at attention in their cells during daylight hours, and when night came they were shackled together with bars and chains, instructed not to speak with their fellow inmates and forced to sleep in their underwear — jammed head-to-toe against one another on the bare floors.

Following days of interrogation, the prisoners were led to windowless chambers where they underwent medieval torture too gruesome to describe, taken to a courtyard and beaten to death with shovels, pickaxes or clubs and buried on the school grounds.

When the graves could hold no more bodies, prisoners were bound with wire, blindfolded and trucked 10 miles to the infamous "killing fields" at Cheong Ek. There they were beaten to death and thrown into mass graves.

Of the estimated 14,000 to 20,000 prisoners incarcerated at Tuol Sleng, all met death except for seven who managed to escape. According to the Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program, 1.7 million Cambodians — about one-fifth of the nation's population — perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge through torture, killing, starvation, overwork or disease.

Walking the halls of the prison, I arrived in a room where photographs of the prisoners taken by their captors were displayed on large panels. Several photos were of women holding infants in their arms. I also came upon a case holding several of the prisoners' skulls that were unearthed in the schoolyard.

The German woman in my small group burst into tears at this sight.

"This is like Nazi Germany," she cried, running outside.

More than 35 years after the depredations began, justice has finally commenced. The prison chief known as "Comrade Duch," who has already served 11 years in prison, was convicted four months ago by a UN-backed tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity and will serve an additional 19 years behind bars. Trials for other Khmer Rouge officials are to begin in early 2011.

After I emerged from Tuol Sleng, Kosal, my taxi driver, expressed skepticism about what is in store for Duch.

"Duch's sentence was too lenient," Kosal told me. "He should have been executed," Kosal told me. "Both my parents, two brothers and 20 of my aunts and uncles were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. There is no real justice here."

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