In the late 1970s, Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia in an effort to liberate the population from a horrific genocide. In the process, they discovered a prison run by the Khmer Rouge. The soldiers were shocked to find that the Khmer Rouge enslaved and tortured everyone from intellectuals to religious leaders in the prison, and kept meticulous records along the way.

The Khmer Rouge Starts A Genocide In Cambodia

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The genocide in Cambodia was carried out between 1975 and 1979; during that time, nearly one and a half to 3 million people died. The genocide was enacted by the Khmer Rouge, which was led by a malicious man named Pol Pot. The genocide was marked by the aggressive relocation of Cambodian citizens—including doctors, teachers, and children—to camps where they were starved, beaten, put in forced labor, interrogated, and brutally executed. Perhaps one of the best representations of the genocide as a whole is the S-21 prison and Choeung Ek killing fields, where thousands of Cambodian people met at terrible fate.

The S-21 Prison

The S-21 prison was a high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into holding cells. The prison could be found at the end of a long, dusty road just outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After the Khmer Rouge converted it in 1976, they started bringing in thousands of people to interrogate, and curiously, kept incredibly detailed records about each prisoner. The prison staff even included a photographer, a man named Nhem En.

Khmer Rouge Leader And Prison Chief Brother Duch

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After the prison was established, a man named Kang Kech Ieu, or Brother Duch, was placed in charge. Ironically, Duch was a teacher before the war broke out, but quickly accepted his role as a leader in the Khemer Rouge. Duch was known for running a tight ship in the prison; he created an environment that frightened both the prisoners and the guards, and he was particularly fond of the interrogations. During one interrogation, Duch told the interrogator to remind the prisoner "about the welfare of his wife and children." He also asked questions like, "does he know what has become of his wife?" in order to insinuate that the prisoner no longer had anything to live for.

Waterboarding, Suffocating, And Burning Prisoners

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Many of the guards in the prison, including Duch, were former peasants and were only 15 to 19 years old. However, they were capable of committing terrifying acts of cruelty. The average prisoner usually began their interrogation in what was called the "cold unit." There, the prisoner wasn't subjected to physical torture, but they were given verbal and political pressure to cough up a confession. If the guards didn't think the confession was good enough, they moved the prisoner to the "hot unit" where the person was brutally beaten with fists, feet, sticks, and electric wire. They would also be waterboarded, burned with cigarettes, given electric shots, stabbed with needles, had their fingernails ripped off, or were suffocated with a plastic bag. On one occasion, guards even covered a prisoner in centipedes and scorpions.

Khmer Rouge Photographer And Soldier Nhem En

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It was possible for a torture session to last for months, with medical staff being brought in to keep the person alive. The purpose of the interrogations were revealed an extreme paranoia amongst the Khmer Rouge soldiers; they were hyper sensitive and thought at any moment they could be kicked out of power by forces like the KGB or CIA. It's unclear why they insisted on taking such documented records at the prison. Their staff photographer, Nhem En, joined the Khmer Rouge when he was just 10 years old. He was only 14 or 15 when he started working at the prison. He claimed that he was able to take the photos of the battered prisoners and maintain a certain emotional distance from them because "they looked different from [him]."

A Terrified, Gaunt Prisoner

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The interrogations at the prison only led to more interrogations; most of the prisoners were so frightened by the process they ended up rattling off a list of names that the Khmer Rouge wrote down. Then, the prisoner was forced to dig their own grave before they were executed. Initially, all of the prisoners were buried on site at the prison, but eventually the Khmer Rouge had killed so many people they were forced to find another grave and execution site. In 1976, they settled on a site, which became known as the Choeung Ek killing fields.

Taking Prisoners To The Killing Fields

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Prisoners were usually taken from the facility to the killing fields in the evening, and were told a lie so that they wouldn't cry or fight back on the way to the execution. It's estimated that the guards killed a few dozen to over 300 people a day at the killing fields, and each killing was personally approved by the prison leader, Duch. Once the prisoners arrived at the fields, they were usually shoved into a small wood building that had a tin roof. The building was pitch black so the prisoners couldn't see one another. Then, a guard would use a small light to go to each individual prisoner to verify their name against his kill-list. Once the guards knew they had all of the correct prisoners, they took them one by one down to a ditch and shot them in the head.

The Mass Grave Produces Unbearable Stench

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Eventually, however, the executions became more creative. The Khmer Rouge was forced to ration their bullets after the economy started to dip and other countries placed sanctions on Cambodia's trade in an effort to stop the genocide. Before long, the prisoners were led down to the ditches in the killing fields and then got hacked to death with anything from a pick axe to a big stick. After the person was presumed dead, a guard stepped in to verify the kill for the record books. Over time, thousands of people were killed there and the stench of the bodies wafted over neighboring rice fields.

An American Held At The Cambodian Camp

Cambodians weren't the only victims of the genocide; there were 11 Westerners documented in the S-21 prison, including this man, American Christopher Edward DeLance. DeLance was traveling abroad in 1978, and accidentally drifted into Cambodian waters. He was captured by the Khmer Rouge, and taken to the S-21 prison where he was forced to sign a document claiming he was not a spy for the CIA. DeLance was executed a week before the Vietnamese invaded the prison, presumably after horrific bouts of torture. Other Americans documented in the camp include Michael Deeds and James Clark.

Teacher Seng Ty Shares His Story With Students

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While only seven people out of thousands survived the torture and brutality at the S-21 prison, they were a mere fraction of those who were impacted by the violence. One survivor of the genocide, Seng Ty, wrote a memoir about his childhood during the genocide titled "The Years of Zero." According to this article from Boston Globe, Ty shared his story with students in the Boston area. During the genocide, Ty was just a young child, but he and his family were treated no different than anyone else. They were packed into a boxcar and shipped a long distance to a labor camp. Along the way, they were given no food or water, and had to fight with one another for "space and air."

Ty's Memoir 'The Years Of Zero'

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According to Ty, he felt it was important to share his story because most students at the school where he worked were descendants of genocide victims. However, most of the students didn't know much about the hardships their loved ones faced because the older generation didn't want to burden their children or grandchildren with such violent stories. However, Ty felt differently. He believed that if he didn't write down his story and make it known, he feared someday it would just disappear. In the book, Ty recounts what it was like to live in a small hut with 30 other prisoners, and described how everyone except him died of starvation.

Ty Shortly After Rescue At 10 Years Old

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At night, Ty tried to steal food to survive and risked getting severely beaten or killed. In an effort to satiate his hunger, he ate insects and leaves. Additionally, he claimed he believed hunger was worse than torture, because "you get dizzy…everything gets fuzzy…you never, ever, stop thinking about food and where to find some." In his talk with Boston students, he also claimed his family and fellow prisoners were horrific to look at during the genocide. He claimed, "every bit of their flesh had been absorbed by hunger…[and] only their bones remained." Eventually, when the genocide ended, Ty ended up getting sent to a UN refugee camp in Thailand where he was featured in TIME magazine. When a couple in Amherst read it, they decided to adopt him.

Remembrance Of The Millions Killed In Genocide

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Survivors like Ty were incredibly lucky. After Cambodia was liberated, the world discovered that nearly 25 percent of the population had been wiped out. In the years following the genocide, Khmer Rouge leaders like Pol Pot were placed on trial for war crimes even though they denied a genocide took place. Even in the early 2000s, Pol Pot claimed he had a totally clear conscience and denied that he was the sole man responsible for the genocide.