Just Strange: Hill of the Poisonous Trees

From the outside, the buildings look much as they were intended to look: like a high school where young people were educated to prepare them for life. The inside of the buildings tell a much darker story, of the buildings’ alternative uses…

In August of 1975, the Khmer Rouge – the Communist Party of Cambodia – won the country’s civil war and began its rise to power. Four short month’s later, Pol Pot’s henchman, Kang Khek Ieu* (also known as Duch; pronounced “Doik”) turned Chao Ponhea Yat High School into a prison and interrogation center where between 12,000 and 20,000  individuals were interrogated and cudgeled to death. Renamed “Security Prison 21” (S-21), the classrooms were divided into small crude cells where prisoners were kept and often tortured. The majority of those who ended up in S-21 were from the previous regime – the losers of the civil war – whom Pol Pot viewed as enemies who had to be eliminated. Before long, though, the party’s paranoia reached epic propotions and it turned on itself, throwing many of its own members into S-21 to fall victim to the same treatment as others.

In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. Combat photographer Ho Van Tay was the first person to document the prison and share the story with the world. The photographs of what he and his colleagues saw as they entered S-21 are now on display in Tuol Sleng.

Of the thousands of prisoners who passed through the S-21, only six or seven survived. Each were kept alive for their usefulness to the prison and to the party itself. As of 2011, only three were known to still be alive.

February 2008 saw Kang Khek Ieu and four other survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s heirarchy were brought to trial. Pol Pot avoided justice by dying in 1998. His friend, Ta Mok, died in 1998. The tribunal, made up of UN Officials as well as Cambodian officials, has give only one conviction: that of Duch. He was sentenced to 35 years which was reduced to 19. The second trial, begun in June 2011, involves Khieu Samphan, former nominal head of state; Nuon Chea, the movement’s ideologue; Ieng Sary, former foreign minister; and his wife Ieng Thirith, former minister of social affairs.

Although it seems strange that there should be a museum dedicated to such a horrific act perpetrated by humanity, it also serves to remind us of how barbaric humanity can be, even in an age of seeming civility.


Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Kang Khek Ieu: ‘They all had to be eliminated’
Conflicts Imperil Future Khmer Rouge Trials

* Note: Alternative spelling of Duch’s real name: Kaing Guek Eav