He changed the story about his friend who had been a prisoner. Now, he told us about his other friend, Da Beoch, who was a prisoner from 1975 to 1976, eventually dying from torture. This was strange, because in S-21 most prisoners were killed almost immediately. They were brought in, photographed, tortured, and made to sign a confession. Then they were killed. The whole process sometimes took less than twenty-four hours. Van Nath’s story is unique. According to Yuk Chan at DCCAM, many prisoners spent less than 36 hours in the prison. Why was this guy here for more than a year? The only possible answer was that he had been a KR guard at the prison for a long time, and then was tortured and killed by his own people. And, once again, how did anyone know this, if they all swore they had never set foot in the prison and if the only people who ever had were all killed?
He pointed at a spot on the ground. “Right there, we found thirty bodies. No one knows the total number of killed.”
He told us there was one survivor, his name was Da Siang.
A younger man of 39 kept interrupting our interview, contradicting Niat Nung’s story. But, when I turned to this younger guy, and began asking him questions, he kept saying, “I was too young. I don’t remember anything.”
“If you don’t remember anything maybe you should keep your mouth shut,” I was thinking. But then, doing some basic math, I realized, he had to be lying.
“You are sure you are 39?” I confirmed.
“Well, then you were ten when the regime started, and fourteen when it ended. Are you telling me you have no memories before the age of fourteen?”
I asked the crowd to tell me about the prison. But now, this guy was answering all the questions. I had the distinct impression he was telling me a pre-established set of answers, and he was answering first, because he didn’t want anyone telling me anything different, such as the truth.
“The fence was electrified,” someone said.
“Where did the guards come from?” I asked.
“What happened to them?”
“A soldier from Hanoi became commune leader,” someone said.
“During the regime?” I asked, confused. The KR had declared war on Vietnam in 1976. How could a Vietnamese be the commune leader?
“No, in 1979.”
That had nothing to do with anything. Why were they telling me this?
“Where did prisoners come from?”
“Prisoners came form everywhere.”
“After the Vietnamese came, we were permitted to go inside the prison, but there was no one left alive in there.”
“But what about the one survivor?” I asked. “He must have been alive.”
“Everyone was dead.”
The villagers were all shouting out irrelevant and erroneous facts. The one useful piece of information I was able to gather was that the warden’s name was Da Chen. Also, the villagers told me that they had built the fist stupa.
Youk Chan, of DCCAM, told me he believed ten thousand people died in this prison. But, since there were no records kept, no one knows for sure.
The 39 year old who was answering too many questions said that if we wanted to find the survivor he would take us. We didn’t want to trust him. But we had no other option. So, we went to the survivor’s house. On the way, we stopped off at a feed store. We told Samedth to follow him inside because we didn’t like the set up. Richard said that he had often paid people to arrange interviews. And then they ran some kind of a scam, where they split the cash with someone who pretended to be the guy or they tainted the interview by feeding him answers.
But Samedth was slow thinking and slow acting so we didn’t know till a few days later what happened in the feed store.
We got to the survivor’s house, but he wasn’t there. We waited for an hour. Richard took a lot of photos of the survivor’s children. And, we both kept joking how it was such a small village where could the man possibly be?
“What is he, on a business trip?” I asked.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot going on in this town,” said Richard. “How could he be too busy to talk to us?”
Richard was shooting countless photos of a little boy, sleeping in a hammock. I shot some photos of Richard. The scene was so beautiful. Richard’s towering form, clad in a combat photographer’s equipment vest, pointing his artillery sized camera lens at the sleeping form of the brown little Khmer boy in the hammock. The bamboo house, surrounded by jungle provided a perfect backdrop.
The flash of my camera made Richard laugh, and he immediately fired back at me, a 90 kg journalist in combat fatigues, sitting on a wicker chair, in the middle of the Cambodian nowhere.
They were both great shots.
“You know a story is winding down when the journalists start photographing each other.”