On Survivors and Struggles

posted by Maura Friedman

In his eighties, Chum Mey’s eyes are the milky hazel of a man who has seen many things in many years. A small man with a powerful presence, his eyes emanate a silent strength and a dignity that might have been lost in other eyes that witnessed the same atrocities he did.

Our group seized the rare opportunity to put a face to one story about the Khmer Rouge when we were given a tour of Tuol Sleng by Chum Mey, one of the 12 people who survived the prison out of the more than 12,000 who saw the inside of its halls. The building housed a high school before the Khmer Rouge transformed the structure into their central interrogation and torture site.

A mechanic, Mey fled Phnom Penh with his wife and four children (none of whom survived the war) when the Khmer Rouge army invaded. With no place to go, they returned to the city when the Khmer Rouge appealed to Cambodians to return to work for them, Mey as a boat mechanic and his wife as a garment worker. After a few months, Mey was told he had been transferred to a different factory in Vietnam along with three other workers. The truck actually dropped the four off at Tuol Sleng Prison.

At Tuol Sleng, classrooms that once promised bright futures were disfigured with brick and wood and chains to construct tiny, individual cells that held captives in isolation. Walking down each hall, I felt the unease of those who were held there as a simultaneously numbing and anxious sadness began to overwhelm me. My eyes widened in the surreal silence of each cell as I took in pools and spatters of blood, sickened, but realizing I was only witness to the aftershocks of the terror. Mey showed us his cell: room 022 on the ground floor of building C.

Although the Khmer Rouge originally targeted anyone who they saw as a threat to their regime and vision of Cambodia as a communist, agrarian utopia (former government officials, religious leaders, intellectuals), deeply institutionalized paranoia soon reached a boiling point as farmers, children, and even Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials were accused of betraying the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. The large, open classrooms on the ground level of Tuol Sleng were designed to elicit confessions.

Mey was tortured in one of these rooms, completely barren save for a metal bed in the middle and scattered instruments of torture propped to the side. Mey demonstrated the way he and other prisoners were chained to the bed using the original crude, hand wrought iron shackles that still lay in the room. The image was disconcerting. Like many others, Mey was beaten with bamboo sticks until his bones broke. Some of his nails were removed and salt water poured over his open wounds. Mey still has hearing and eyesight loss the side of his head where interrogators electrocuted him until he lay unconscious on multiple occasions.

All throughout his torture, the obsessed Khmer Rouge continued to insist that Mey was either a CIA or KGB spy. They eventually relented when, after days of torture, Mey falsely confessed he had sabotaged factory work in Phenom Pen by spilling acid on fabric and breaking sewing needles.

Like the prison cells, these torture rooms remain unchanged from their darkest days, although the unfortunate corpses that the Vietnamese found when they liberated the prison, draped over each bed like mangled dancers, are now gone, buried in individual mausoleums in the school yard and immortalized in enlarged photos on the wall of each room. Within those torture rooms, each stone seemed steeped in despair, as if every perforated surface absorbed the screams of those terrorized within. My stomach turned as I tiptoed from room to room, careful not to disturb the restless souls I could feel within each room.

We know as much as we do about Tuol Sleng today because of the detailed documentation the Khmer Rouge made of every prisoner, every monstrous act of torture, every false confession and every contorted corpse. These records, however atrocious, ended up saving Mey’s life. As a mechanic, he was able to fix the typewriters that sat in the torture rooms to record confessions, making himself both valuable and inexplicably tied to the actions in the rooms.

After 72 days, Mey escaped during the confusion that ensued when Khmer Rouge officials tried to take some prisoners to fight on the front line of the border just a few days before Vietnamese liberation.

Despite living as a free man for the past few decades, a sense of justice still eludes Mey. Only one high ranking Khmer Rouge official has been sentenced to date, and his prison time is a mere thirty-five years. He likened the emotions of Khmer Rouge officials on trial to crocodile tears. Mey was visibly angry when he compared the pre-trial holding conditions of these officials, many on house arrest, all with doctors and fair treatment, to his own brutal captivity, saying the juxtaposition was unfair. In testifying at these trials and giving tours and talks about his experiences to groups, Mey relives the horrors of his past and says he can only sleep four hours a night.

“I live in the sad. I live in the scary,” he says. But he doesn’t want the next generation to blame him for surviving and not telling his story. So he continues.


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