26 Haunting Portraits Of Prisoners During The Cambodian Genocide

Published May 15, 2016
Updated March 29, 2019

A disturbing look at life in the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh during the Cambodian genocide.

During the invasion of Cambodia in late 1979, Vietnamese soldiers uncovered a hastily abandoned prison in Phnom Penh containing meticulous records of each inmate, complete with a portrait photo and detailed “confessions” of their crimes committed against the Khmer Rouge.

That prison was Tuol Sleng, or Security Prison 21, a former high school in the Cambodian capital that was converted into a prison and interrogation center upon the Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power in 1975. Under the guise of building a classless agrarian economy, the Khmer Rouge targeted anyone that was incompatible with their vision of Cambodia including intellectuals, ethnic minorities, religious figures, and city-dwellers.

In the following four years, Cambodians perceived to be saboteurs or traitors to the state — some simply because they worked in factories or wore glasses — were taken to the prison to be tortured until they provided a full confession along with names of their collaborators. After confessions were made, almost all inmates were executed: of the 20,000 prisoners taken to Tuol Sleng, only seven survived.

Below are some of the portraits taken of prisoners upon their arrival to Tuol Sleng, which help us understand what life was like in one of the most brutal parts of the Cambodian genocide:

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26 Haunting Portraits Of Prisoners During The Cambodian Genocide
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To date, only one person -- prison chief Kang Kek Iew, better known as Duch -- has been prosecuted by the United Nations for the crimes committed at Tuol Sleng. Upon returning to the prison as part of the trial, he broke drown while saying:

I ask for your forgiveness – I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might.

In 2012, Duch was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, torture, murder, and his participation in the Cambodian genocide.

For a deeper look inside of Tuol Sleng, watch the below documentary, "S21 - The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine," which chronicles the lives of former prisoners and prison guards, culminating with their face-to-face reunion inside the prison:

Next, learn about five lesser-known genocides the history books tend not to cover. Then, see perhaps the most haunting photo of the Rwandan genocide. Finally, learn about the brutality of Belgium's Leopold II and his genocide in Africa.

Alexander is a cofounder of All That's Interesting with an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in History and Economics and an MSc from the School of Oriental and African Studies in Economics. He specializes in American history, the Cold War, and true crime.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Baldwin, Alexander. "26 Haunting Portraits Of Prisoners During The Cambodian Genocide." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 15, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/cambodian-genocide-portraits. Accessed April 24, 2024.