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S-21's youthful guards tell their story

S-21's youthful guards tell their story


This concise and vividly written study draws on interviews conducted by two researchers

affiliated with the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), an NGO in Phnom Penh

whose objective is to "record and preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge regime

for future generations".

Victims and Perpetrators? Testimony of Young Khmer Rouge Comrades

By Meng-Try Ea and Sorya Sim

Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2001

Reviewed by David Chandler

For several months in 1999-2000, Ea and Sim sought out former employees of the infamous

Khmer Rouge interrogation center in the capital, known at that time by its code name

S-21. Between May 1976 and January 1979, over 14,000 men, women and children accused

of being enemies of the state, were interrogated and often tortured at the prison.

Sooner or later, all but seven of these inmates were brutally put to death.

In their research, Ea and Sim sought out workers at S-21 who had been between 12

and 18 years of age in the Khmer Rouge era. They did so because this group was highly

favored by the Khmer Rouge, whose leaders regarded them as "the best source

for revolution because they have learned politics, spirits, and organization"


To locate surviving workers in this age cohort, Ea and Sim drew on 762 autobiographical

texts, written by employees at the prison. These documents, now housed at DC-Cam,

often include contemporary mug shots, and were helpful in identifying the workers'

home villages, parents' names, and so forth.

Eighteen former employees were located in villages north of Phnom Penh and agreed

to talk about their time at S-21. Their unvarnished recollections provide chilling

details about the workings of that fearsome institution, which "Brother Number

3", Son Sen, once called "the life-breath" of the state.

The former workers, naturally, were unwilling to accept responsibility for the atrocities

at the prison, and with some justification, for as we learn from the interviews,

much of the terror enacted at S-21 was directed at the workers themselves. As one

of the workers told Sim and Ea, "I dream that my boss [at S-21] is screaming

at me and accusing me of making mistakes" - for which the penalty was often


Another former worker recalled that "everyone tried their best to search for

one another's faults. I was waking and living in fear and horror."

Sim and Ea argue persuasively that these former employees, who worked as guards,

"catchers" and interrogators, should be perceived as both perpetrators

and victims, locked inside a murderous "total institution" - the phrase

is Erwin Goffman's - from which there was no escape, and which sent over 500 of its

own employees, or roughly a third of the total, to their untimely deaths.

The book is excellent for the insights it provides into day to day life in a key

institution at the heart of Pol Pot's Cambodia. I believe that some of the interview

texts might have been longer, and some of the authors' analysis of what they heard

might also have been extended. As it stands, however, Victims and Perpetrators? is

a monument to the skill and dedication of its authors and to the invaluable ongoing

work of DC-Cam.


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