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?”
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.”
Eventually we called it a day and headed back to Phnom Penh.
Richard and I went back to DCCAM and told Young Chang about us feeling threatened when we were in the village.
His reaction comforted us. “Under Khmer Rouge law, you are entitled to police protection while doing a KR story,” he said. “All you have to do is call the police in the morning, and they will drive you out to do the story. Also, anyone who refuses to talk to you, if you report them the police, the police are obligated to arrest that person, bring him to the police station, and force him to talk to you.”
I definitely had the feeling that in the villages we were in danger. And, back in Phnom Penh, many Khmers and foreign journalists had told me that the police and army in these villages were just KR who had changed their uniforms. And they still operated as they always had. But we were close enough to Phnom Penh that my gut said if I contacted them through official channels they would do as they were told, and protect us. But if they didn’t, they could be the ones who would attack us. I later heard that two French cameramen were driven out of the village by the police.
Of course, it may have been a coincidence that they were doing a KR story. They may have been driven out just for being smelly, unwashed Frenchmen. But, it still made us nervous. I was careful to spend extra time bathing. And Richard constantly sent our GPS coordinates back to his office.
When we returned to the survivor’s house, we came unannounced. It turned out that he had been in the feed store on the day of our previous visit, and that he had been dissuaded from talking to us by the 39 year old guy, who we had paid for the interview. We couldn’t get a straight answer from the survivor, anyway, if the 39 year old had worked for the government, the KR, or both.
The survivor told us his name was Da Chien. As much as my heart went out to him, interviewing him was extremely frustrating, as none of his facts made any sense.
He said he was captured in 1972, at age 14, by the commune leader when he came here to visit relatives. His brother was arrested first one month earlier.
But I didn’t think that Takeo province was already a Khmer Rouge stronghold in that year. Also, I thought the prison didn’t open till 1974. He said that he was arrested first, held for more than a year, and then witnessed his father’s execution.
According to Da Chien, the prison was built in 1972. But no other information that we had corroborated his story.
On the second telling of the story, Da Chien was 16 when he was a prisoner, in 1974. His father, the president of the district, was taken by Pol Pot in 1975. Supposedly, they chained all of the high-ranking Lon Nol officials together, and walked them from Jium Ba village to the prison, a distance of 56 km.
“Before they got here, they didn’t let the prisoners know where they were going,” said Da Chien. “In the prison, there were a lot of high ranking officials. They were told it was reeducation. But, they killed all the Lon Nol officials, from 1975-1978.”
“When I saw them put my father in jail, I thought I might be killed any day,” said Da Chien.
He was obviously afraid to talk to us, and kept glancing around at the other villagers, who were taking too much interest in our conversation. We had begun the interview at his house, but people started coming around. So, we moved to the stupa. A huge crowd gathered, and Richard eventually got nervous.
“Walk calmly back to the car,” he whispered. “Keep talking.” We got in the car and continued the interview while driving. Eventually, we stopped under a tree to talk.
Da Chien said that one mass grave contained 100 people. “After they filled a grave they started a new one and killed the next group of people.” Of his father he said, “He was taken in 1975, at 9 pm, and killed the next day at 12 noon.”
His father was in a mass grave and he had recognized the corpse from its gold teeth. He said that the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1978 and that there were seven survivors, of whom two were still alive.
According to DCCAM it was normal that people would be in the prison less than 36 hours before being killed. So the story about the father was believable. But why was this boy taken so early? And, why did he survive for so long?
“They kept me alive because the leader loved me,” said Da Chien.
“But it doesn’t make sense that he loved you enough to countermand orders and keep you alive,” I pointed out.
“There were no orders,” explained Da Chien. “No one knew I had been arrested.”
“Then why were you arrested?”
“Because my father was with Lon Nol, and they arrested all of the families.”
“Then there was an order for your arrest?”
“Then people knew you had been arrested. Why weren’t you killed?”
“The commander wanted someone who could climb trees and gather coconuts.”
“But this is the provinces. Everyone can climb trees and gather coconuts.”
“He also had me look after the cattle. And do some farming.”
Those weren’t really specialized skills out here.
The only way I could think of that he stayed alive was that he hadn’t been captured at all. I believed that he had been Khmer Rouge himself.
“You said that the leader spared you because he loved you. Did you know the leader before?”
“Yes, he was the father’s best friend.”
Mok was the name of the head of the prison. Now, he and Da Chien lived next door to each other.
“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.
“What exactly are you scared of?” I asked.
Everyone had warned me that this story was dangerous. But, when I asked why, all they said was “You could get hurt.” But by whom? Or what could they do? The questions went unanswered.
“I am afraid of the commandant,” he said.
“What does he do now?”
“He’s a farmer.”
“And is he politically connected?”
“And how old is he?”
“Does he have weapons?”
“Does he have a following?” I wondered if there was still a KR cult somewhere forming around these old guys.
“So, he is an unarmed 59-year-old farmer, with no power and no followers, but you are afraid of him?”
The man just repeated several times. “I am afraid. I am afraid.”
We had gotten all that I thought we were going to get from the interview. We paid our witness, and then started to get back in the car. There was a tense moment when the 39 year old from the previous day showed up at the survivor’s house. He almost had our car blocked in the driveway, but our driver saw the trap closing. Quickly, but without raising alarm, he backed out of the narrow drive, and on to the dirt road, where it would have been difficult, and obvious to try and block us in.
The look on the 39 year-old’s face was one of both anger and disappointment. If he had blocked us in the driveway he could have waited till his friends arrived. But now that our car was free, there was nothing he could do. He drove off in a puff of red dust.
The fear level in the survivor’s eyes shot through the roof. It was as if he believed that the young man would be back later.
As we waved our final goodbyes, he spoke the words that were the truest and most poignant of our lengthy conversation.
“I am the only former prisoner and the only one who could be a witness against them. If they kill me, the KR trial cannot happen without witnesses.”
The next day, we followed up with Youk Chang, at his office at DCCAM. When I mentioned the survivor, he immediately said, “Oh, the one whose father had gold teeth.”
His memory was amazing.
Once again, I asked Youk Chang, what, specifically the survivor and the others were afraid of.
“They were afraid because many of the officials in these areas are former KR, and they still operate together, and stick together. Young guys growing up don’t know any better. So, they follow them.”
Was my hunch right that the former KR were still building a movement in the bush? It just seemed so unlikely that all hatred died on the day that the cease fire was called in 1997.
The most shocking revelation of the entire story was when Youk Chang told us that the village headman, who we had met on the first day, was actually the former commandant of the prison; the one who had both spared the life of the boy and killed the brother and the father. Now they lived literally four doors away from each other. I had sat two feet away from him, and had no idea of the evil he had done.