Note: This is not my usual lighthearted post about what I saw and what I ate, but it’s a story I feel compelled to share. This is another side of Cambodia.
“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
-Khmer Rouge slogan
This is what I knew about the Khmer Rouge before coming to Cambodia: Pol Pot, the leader, was very bad; he killed millions of Cambodians in the mid-70s, targeting the educated; people were forced from their homes to work in fields and become “re-educated” or killed; The Killing Fields was an Oscar-winning movie about such atrocities, which I saw many years ago. That pretty much sums it up.
I’ve been to Auschwitz and learned, as many of us have over the years, about the horrors of the holocaust. It’s part of our public consciousness. We learn about it in school, visit museums, read books and watch movies about it- as we absolutely should. We’ve heard survivors say, “We must never forget.” I was even lucky enough to see Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and author of Night, speak at my university. As I learned more about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide, I realized how little I knew about it. I wondered why the killing of approximately 2 million people (the number varies depending on the source), comprising more than 20% of the country’s population, flew so far under my radar.
The Killing Fields
Less than 10km outside of Phnom Penh lies Choeung Ek, one of the many so-called Killing Fields in operation during the Khmer Rouge regime. It is now a museum where an audio guide directs visitors through the strangely peaceful grounds. More than 100 mass graves dominate the area where 17,000 men, women and children lost their lives between 1975 and 1978. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste bullets on their victims, so most were bludgeoned to death. Bits of bone and cloth can be seen scattered among the earth even today. I walked around with headphones on, in a zombie-like state, trying to wrap my head around what happened there. It’s just something you can’t quite process.
Many victims came to Choeung Ek from the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh.
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
The former S-21 prison is now called the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, and is located in South Phnom Penh. Before it was a prison, it was a high school with adjoining primary school, but Pol Pot took it over in April of 1975 for the detention, interrogation, torture and killing of those suspected of being against the regime. A piece of physical fitness equipment was turned into a torture machine where prisoners were hung upside down until they passed out, after which their heads would be dunked in filthy water to bring them back to consciousness. This helped get false confessions out of the victims about working for the CIA or KGB, organizations many prisoners had never even heard of. Classrooms were turned into torture chambers and holding cells, some made of clumsily thrown-together brick, barely large enough for prisoners to lie down. Crude doorways were created from blasted concrete walls to connect the “classrooms”. My zombie-like state carried me through again, but was broken when seeing the victim’s photos; their innocent faces staring directly at me. Everyone who passed through had their picture taken before being killed at S-21 or meeting their fate at Choeung Ek. The rows upon rows of men, women, children and even entire families seemed never ending.
It was towards the end of my Tuol Sleng visit, while in a complete daze, that I saw a man sitting at a table with a banner claiming he was a survivor of S-21. I knew from my visit that only seven people were believed to have survived, so could he really be one of them? I walked over and a woman explained that he did indeed make it out of S-21, and would I like to buy his book for $10? Whoa, wait a minute. Here sat a man who endured the tortures of this place, and he returns to sell his story? After everything I had just seen, it was too much to take. Heartbroken, I bought his book, took a photo and left with tears in my eyes. When my friend Natalia and I got back to our hotel I asked her, “Why don’t we know about this guy?” He is one of SEVEN survivors, yet I’ve never seen a 60 Minutes segment or even heard about his story. And he’s selling his book in the very place he was subjected to such brutality in order to support his family?! I was mad.
Natalia and I went to Siem Reap, and then to Sihanoukville, and then back to Phnom Penh. She left, and I kept thinking about Bou Meng, this man I briefly met. I had to go back. So I paid my $2 entrance fee and walked directly to his spot, where he was again sitting. There were a few people around him so I asked if anyone spoke English. I said I wanted to talk to Bou Meng and just ask him a few questions. No English from anyone. I watched as people simply walked past him, not knowing the historical treasure who sat feet away. Then I turned and saw another table. It was Chum Mey, the other survivor. These two men are the only living prisoners and they are both peddling their stories to people passing by. I asked the woman next to Chum Mey if she spoke English. She was able to tell me his book was $10, and that was about it. Ok, another $10 it is, so I collected my book and left.
What kept these men alive? For Chum Mey, he was singled out for his ability to repair the typewriters used at the prison. Bou Meng was an artist, and was asked to paint several portraits of Pol Pot. The first one he painted was compared against the original photo for accuracy. If the slightest difference was detected, he would’ve been killed. Bou Meng was brought to the prison with his wife, who he never saw after they were separated that first day. Years later when he revisited the prison, he looked for the photo that was taken of her upon arrival. Today he keeps a copy with him as it’s the only remaining image he has of her. Chum Mey witnessed his wife and newborn son killed with assault rifles in a rice field.
After exploring the northeast, I returned to Phnom Penh again and thoughts of Bou Meng and Chum Mey still swirled in my head. I just couldn’t let it go, so I went back a third time. Bou Meng was at lunch, as was Chum Mey. I asked the woman at Bou Meng’s table if she spoke English. “A little,” she replied. I said I just wanted to talk to Bou Meng for a few minutes. Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing there or what I wanted to ask. I just felt I needed more. So I waited, and while I did, I asked her some questions. I found out she was his niece and spent most days there with Bou Meng, helping him sell his book. He and Chum Mey are now friends, but didn’t know each other when they were imprisoned. They are the last living survivors of S-21. Bou Meng used to live in the countryside and would travel to Phnom Penh occasionally, but he recently moved to the city so he could sell his book full time. Tuol Sleng is the only place you can buy it as it’s self-published, evident by the shoddy photocopy job. Such a shame.
Bou Meng returned from lunch. I knew he was a small man when I first met him, but watching him walk down the sidewalk, I realized he couldn’t be more than 5 feet tall. I didn’t want to take too much time away from selling his book, so I kept it short. I asked what he wanted people to know about his story. Through his translator niece, this is what he said:
“I want people to know what happened to me. That I didn’t make any mistake. I didn’t know anything about the CIA or KGB. I didn’t do anything wrong. I am a painter. I am a painter.” He continued, “I want people to learn about the genocide. I hope no more people are killed without reason. I want justice for the past and the present.”
Pretty simple requests. He made a point of conveying that there’s a place in this world for punishment as a consequence for wrong doing, but what happened to him was not that. It was unjust and unwarranted.
At $10 a pop he and Chum Mey are probably eking out a decent living by Cambodian standards, but the fact that they need to sit THERE to do it feels so wrong. And the biggest tragedy is that these men won’t be around for much longer, yet their stories have only been heard by a relative few. I don’t have a large platform, but I can share a small piece of their lives with you. It’s the very least I can do.
Not a whole lot is available on these two men. There is a compelling documentary called S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine in which Chum Mey and Van Nath (S-21 survivor, now deceased) are featured along with their captors, which won several awards. There is also a NY Times article about the Khmer Rouge tribunal that reports a bit about them both. Thankfully they lived to see “Duch”, the S-21 commander, receive a life sentence for his crimes, although that didn’t come to pass until 2012 (after the initial 2010 sentence of 19 years was overturned). That’s a long time to wait for justice.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.