“Did you see your father when you were in prison?”
“No, he lived in another cell.”
“How did you see your father’s murder then?”
“I saw from the top of a tree. I was climbing after coconuts, and when I looked down, I saw my father’s gold teeth.”
“It’s a little strange that you were climbing a tree right at that moment,” I pointed out.
“Someone told me that my father had been brought in, so I climbed the tree to look for him.”
He interrupted himself to tell us about what happened after the Vietnamese arrived.
“They killed five people per day. They turned up a radio very loud, so you couldn’t here the screams of people being tortured. On the day the Vietnamese came the KR took all the prisoners to the mountains. They left some in the jail, and they were released by the Vietnamese.”
“And they survived?” I asked.
“So, there are more survivors?”
“No, only me. They took me with them, but I ran away after we were in the jungle.”
“And why did they take you with them but leave the others?” I asked.
“Because he loved me.”
“But why did you run away?”
“Because they were going to kill us all.”
“If the leader loved you why would he kill you? And why did he take the others away from the jail to kill them?”
No real answer followed.
Interviewing Khmers was always a tedious job. The cultural barriers were immense. Maybe they would lie to keep their country from losing face. Maybe they would lie to keep themselves from losing face. Sometimes they probably believed they were telling the truth. To a rural Khmer, 1978 was probably just as good as 1979, or 1973 for that matter. So, they didn’t understand westerners’ obsession with dates and numbers and times. Even names were forgotten or omitted. And “Why?” was the one question one could never ask in Khmer society. So, that line of questioning was always fruitless. And finally, you were never meant to draw conclusions. It was considered polite to just accept anything anyone else said as truth, even if they contradicted themselves.
According to DCCAM, the prisoners didn’t have numbers or photos. This fact was corroborated by Da Chien. He also added, “The prison had 400 prisoners, sometimes more. Some lived a week, some three days.”
“Who was the commandant when you got here?”
“But I thought your name was Da Chien?” I protested, loosing my temper. It was ironic that this guy had survived years at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, only to be beaten to death by a journalist, thirty years later.
“No,” He said. “My name is Soi Saen.”
This was the first I had ever heard of this name.
The name thing aside, I needed to know more about this commandant. According to the book Voices from S-21, toward the end of the regime, when paranoia was running high, the life expectancy of anyone in power was about four months. After that, he would be accused, tortured, and killed buy the KR. So, I asked how this guy was able to hold such a high position for so long.
“He didn’t. There were three different commandants while I was prisoner.”
“You said that you stayed alive because Da Chien loved you. How did you stay alive with three different leaders?”
“They all loved me.”
“Man! A lot of people loved you. What did you do that was so special?”
“I climbed trees and gathered coconuts. And, I tended cattle.”
“How did he survive if he lost his post as commandant?”
“He didn’t lose it.”
“But there were three different commandants.”
“How did that work then?”
“I don’t know.” He went on to say, “Some victims were KR taken from other places. All three commandants survived, and so did I and one more former prisoner.”
“Do you know the whereabouts of the other survivor?”
“Yes, he lives four doors away. So does the commandant.”
When I asked Richard what he thought about the story, he said that it was amazing that I hadn’t killed anyone yet. “With that Sonny Corleone temper of yours, I am surprised that you have survived this long in Cambodia.” But on a deeper level he said that he did believe that this guy was the survivor of something. And that the fear the guy was demonstrating was real. He looked like a scared rabbit, and became very nervous whenever people came close to us.