While S-21 is the most infamous of Khmer Rouge prisons, the KR maintained more than one hundred other prisons in Cambodia, of which there is only one survivor.
We were on our way out to Takeo province, about two hours outside of Phnom Penh, to visit the site of one of the other prisons, Kray Giang Prison, in Kra Ta Gan village. We were hoping to find a physical structure, like S-21. But instead, all we found was a stupa, filled with human skulls. At the base of the stupa, there was a brief inscription, in Khmer, which read “This stupa, was paid for by Gia Sim.”
That was it. There was no documentation that a prison had rested on this site, or that thousands had died there, or that the long, scar-like bumps in the Earth were mass graves.
DCCAM had told us about one stupa and one prison. But, we had told Samedth to have the driver take us only to the prison. In fact we thought that Samedth had misunderstood and taken us to the wrong place. Richard was furious.
We called for the village headman, and met a portly gentleman, in his late fifties or early sixties, who called himself Niat Nung. We asked if he was headman he said that he was a Buddhist clergyman. But as all of the villagers seemed to respect him, we decided that this was the right man to ask. He told us that the prison had been destroyed by the villagers in 1979. So, Samedth had taken us to the right place. But why was there almost nothing there to document the history?
He told us the prison was built in 1976, although people were interned at the location as early as 1974. Most westerners see 1975 as the beginning of the KR regime. But it was later explained to me that by the time Phnom Penh fell in 1975, it was the last government strong hold. And some outlying regions had already been under KR control for more than one year.
Niat Nung’s story was that he had lived in the village before 1975. But then the KR sent him away to another place. When we asked how he knew about the prison, he said that they brought him back. His story didn’t make a lot of sense. But often, when interviewing Khmers, there was a lot of double talk and contradiction. I asked if he were a prisoner in the prison. He said “no.” So, I asked how he knew so much about the prison. He said that he had been a forced laborer outside the prison, nearby and had seen everything.
“You were there for the entire KR time?” I asked doubtfully.
This made no sense. People were often moved around by the KR. “What work did you do?” I asked.
“Bridge builder.” He answered.
“And what work did the KR have you do?”
“Bridge building.” He answered simply.
This also made no sense. Educated people were killed by the KR. Specifically, bridge builders and people who knew how to build dykes and dams were killed. And then, the work of building bridges, dykes and dams was done by the illiterate Khmers, from the country side. As a result, all of the bridges collapsed, and the dams washed away.
My guess was that he was a KR, but didn’t want to tell us. But for some reason, I just guessed he were a lower level KR. When I later found out the truth, however, I was staggered.
I asked if he knew anyone who had died in the prison. He answered in the affirmative. His friend Da Wang had died of starvation there. “His body was very skinny because there was no food,” said Niat Nung. “There was no treatment. They all suffered from swelling. After they died, they were buried in mass graves all around here.”
“Did you see your friend die?” I asked.
“No, I wasn’t allowed in.”
“So, how did you know?”
Again, there was no acceptable answer.
The crowd around us kept growing. Now, the whole village had come to tell us their story.
“What happened to the guards and the commandant of the prison?” I asked. “They died.”
“Did they die here?” I asked, hoping to hear of at least one situation where Khmers had risen up and slaughtered an oppressor, rather than robbing and killing each other.
“No, they died in another place,” came his disappointing answer.
“Did you villagers kill them?” I hadn’t completely given up hope.
“No, they went away. And, they died.”
“When did they go away?”
“Did the Vietnamese army kill them?” I figured they were driven out by the invading forces.
“No, they went away first.”
“Did any of you go with them?”
“So, how do you know they died?”