​The 'poisonous hill' that was Toul Sleng | Phnom Penh Post

The 'poisonous hill' that was Toul Sleng


Publication date
02 May 1997 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Post Staff

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Cambodian People's Party supporters at a political rally in Phnom Penh before the election on Friday, July 26. HONG MENEA

Toul Sleng, a detention and torture facility under Pol Pot's rule, is now a museum

and popular tourism site. Youk Chhang looks at the origins and operations

of the Khmer Rouge regime's premier secret prison.

In English, the word "Toul Sleng" is recognized as the location where

the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime set up a prison to hold people who were accused

of opposing Angkar [the Pol Pot regime "organisation"]. However, in Khmer

language, the word "Toul Sleng" connotes a terrible meaning in itself.

It is perhaps only a strange coincidence that the DK regime used this specific location

as a prison.

According to the Khmer dictionary published by the Khmer Buddhist Institute in 1967,

the word 'Toul' is a noun. It means the ground which is higher in level than that

around it. The word 'Sleng' can be a noun and also an adjective. When the word 'Sleng'

functions as an adjective, it means "supplying guilt" (del oye tos) or

"bearing of guilt" (del noum oye mean tos) or "enemy of disease"

(del chea sat-troy neng rok). As a noun, 'Sleng' means the two kinds of indigenous

Khmer poisonous trees. The first kind is 'Sleng Thom' or 'Big Sleng' which have big

trunks, leaves, and fruits. The second type is 'Sleng Vine' which is shaped almost

like vine with small fruits. They are both poisonous. Therefore, from the above translation

we can derive the definition that Toul Sleng literally means: a poisonous hill or

a place on a mound to keep those who bear or supply guilt toward Angkar.

According to documents discovered by the Cambodian Genocide Project (CGP), in August

1975, S-21 was established at Toul Sleng.

S-21, later known as Toul Sleng Prison, was the most secret organ of the DK regime.

"S-21" - which stood for "Security Office 21" - was Angkar's

premier security institution, specifically designed for the interrogation and extermination

of anti-Angkar elements.

In 1962, the building at S-21 had been functioning as a high school called "Ponyeah

Yat" high school, named after a Royal family. During the Lon Nol Regime in 1970,

the name Ponyeah Yat was changed to Toul Svay Prey High School. Behind the school

fence, there were two wooden buildings with thatched roofs. These buildings were

constructed before 1970 as a primary school called Boeung Keng Kang and later its

name was also changed to the primary school of Toul Sleng. Today all of these building

are known simply as "Toul Sleng" or Toul Sleng prison of the DK regime.

S-21, located in Khum Toul Svay Prey, in the south of Phnom Penh, covers as area

of 600x400 meters. During the DK regime this facility was enclosed by two folds of

corrugated iron sheets, all covered with dense barbed wire which was electrified

in an attempt to prevent escape from the prison. There were also many houses around

the four school buildings which were used as administrative offices, interrogation

and torture offices.

S-21 had other branches located elsewhere. One was as S-21 (Kor), which was located

in Takmao town of Khet Kandal; another was S-21 (Khor) located at Prey Sar (a colonial

era prison), west of Phnom Penh in Srok Dang Kor, Khet Kandal. S-21(Kor) and S-21

(Khor) were responsible for producing agriculture supplies for the S-21 complex.

All the classrooms of Toul Sleng high school were converted into a various kinds

of prison cells. All the windows were grated with pieces of strong iron bar, and

covered on the outside with barbed wire to prevent possible escape by the prisoners.

The classrooms on the ground floors were divided into small cells, 2x0.8 meters each.

One prisoner was put in each cell. All the rooms on the top floors of the four buildings

were used as mass prison cells measuring 80x8m. On the middle floor of these three-story

buildings, cells were built to hold female prisoners.

At first, the interrogations were conducted in the houses around the prison. However,

because women taken to the interrogation rooms were often raped by the interrogators,

in 1978 the head of the S-21 decided to convert Building B for use as an interrogation

office, as this made it easier to control the interrogation process.

All of the Security Office and branches were under the authority of the Central Committee

and the DK Ministry of Defense. Pol Pot appointed a core member of the Central Committee

named Duch to head up the S-21 system. Duch was born as Kang Kech Eav in Phnom Chor

Youk, Khum Chine Thbong, Kampong Thom. He was formerly a teacher.

The Research Committee on Genocide reported in 1983 that in other to maintain security

and manage all the activities in S-21 and its branches, in 1976 the DK regime employed

a large staff divided into four units responsible for S-21, S-21 (Kor), S-21 (Khor),

and S-21(Khorr). The total number of workers was 1,720, comprised of:

  1. Internal workforce 141

  2. Office personnel 148

  3. Interrogation teams 54

  4. General workers 1,377

Within each unit, there were several sub-units composed of male and female children

ranging from 10 and 15 years of age. These children were trained and selected by

the DK regime to work as guards at S-21. They were not normal children. They are

reported to have been exceptionally cruel and disrespectful toward their elders.

There were two management offices; one was Duch's office and the other one was the

office for interrogation report collection and general administration. Ill or injured

prisoners were treated in their cells. Treatment was given three time per day. There

were no hospital services inside the prison at all. Medical personnel there were

mostly children and all they could do was distribute medicines and bind wounds.

The victims in the prison were taken from everywhere throughout the country and from

all walks of life. They were of different nationalities, including Vietnamese, Laotian,

Thai, Indian, Pakistani, British, American, Canadian, New Zealand, and Australian,

but the vast majority, indeed, were Cambodians, The civilian prisoners were composed

of workers, farmers, engineers, technicians, intellectuals, professors, teachers,

students, and even ministers and diplomats. Moreover, whole families of prisoners,

from the bottom on up, even their newborn babies, were taken there en masse.

S-21 was a detention center, not an extermination site. Prisoners were taken from

Toul Sleng to the killing fields of Choeung Ek, about 12km south of Phnom Penh, for


According to reports found in the Toul Sleng archives by CGP, the inflow and outflow

of prisoners from 1975 to June 1978 was recorded on lists. Besides these documents,

nothing more has been found. Some documents have disappeared. One report estimated

the number of prisoners as follows:


154 prisoners


2,250 prisoners


2,330 prisoners


5,765 prisoners

These figures totalling 10,499, do not include the children at S-21 killed by

the DK regime, which is estimated by the same report at 2,000.

The report added that in 1977 and 1978, the prison on average held between 1200 and

1500 at a time. The duration of imprisonment ranged from 2 to 4 months, although

important political prisoners were held between 6 and 7 months.

The prisoners kept in the small cells were shackled with chains fixed to the walls

or the concrete floors. Prisoners held in the large mass cells had one or both their

legs shackled to short or long pieces of iron bar. The short iron bar, up to 1m long,

was designed for four prisoners. The longer one was 6 meters, and held 20 to 30 prisoners.

Before the prisoners were put in cells they were photographed, and a detailed biography

from childhood up to the date of their arrests was recorded. Then they were undressed,

leaving them only their underwear. Everything - even a small piece of paper - was

taken away from them. The prisoners had to sleep directly on the floors without any

mats, mosquito nets or blankets.

Every morning at 4:30, all prisoners were told to remove their shorts, down to the

ankles, for inspection by prison staff. Then they were told to do some physical exercise

just by moving their hands and legs up and down for half an hour, even though their

legs remained restrained by the iron bars. The prison staff inspected the prisoners

four times per day; sometimes a special check was made by the inspection unit from

the security office. During inspections, the prisoners had to put their arms behind

their backs and at the same time raise their legs so that the guards could check

whether or not the shackles were loose. If loose, the shackles were replaced.

The prisoners had to defecate into small iron buckets and urinate into small plastic

buckets kept in their cells. They were required to ask for permission from the prison

guards in advance of relieving themselves, otherwise, they were beaten or received

20-60 strokes with a whip as punishment. In each cell, the regulations were posted

on small pieces of black board. The regulations read as follows:

You must answer accordingly to my questions. Do not turn them away.

Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts of this and that. You are strictly

prohibited to contest me.

  1. Don't be a fool for you are a chap who dares to thwart the revolution.
  2. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  3. Don't tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  4. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
  5. Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no orders, keep quiet.

    When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.

  6. Don't make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom [southern Vietnam] in order to hide

    your jaw of a traitor.

  7. If you don't follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric


  8. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or

    five shocks of electric discharge.

S-21 or Toul Sleng Prison remains a mysterious place to western scholars and the

world, but it was never and not to its victims, the Cambodian people.

- Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an

autonomous Cambodian research institute initially established as the field office

of the United States-funded Cambodia Genocide Program. The translation into English

from the original Khmer text was done by Phat Kosal.

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